Honoring our Veterans

By Paul Weddle, KCH COO
[CW: War]

This week our country will, as we do every November 11th, celebrate Veterans Day by honoring the many women and men who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Started in 1919, 102 years ago, by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, as Armistice Day, November 11th originally recognized those who had died in World War I, on the day that War ended. It was World War II Veteran Raymond Weeks who, in 1945, proposed expanding Armistice Day to a national holiday recognizing Veterans of all wars. 

September 2nd 2021 marked the 76th year since World War II ended. For most of us, World War II is a historical footnote brought to life through the magic of the movies, as our World War II Veterans have nearly disappeared. I bring this up as it reminds me of one of my favorite hospice moments from a few years ago. As part of our We Honor Veterans program, KCH liaisons were thanking Veterans throughout the community for their service and I happened to be riding with a liaison to thank Veterans in assisted living facilities. Throughout the day, we met women and men who had served in wars spanning from WWII to the Gulf War. Some Veterans were capable of responding to our words of gratitude, while others remained locked in solitude, hidden behind eyes turned gray and minds addled by age. 

We met a couple that day who married just after World War II ended. The wife, who had fairly advanced dementia, greeted us at the door like we were part of the family. Unphased by her show of affection, the Liason I was with skillfully maneuvered us into the front room to meet her husband, a World War II Veteran. We made eye contact and I worked my way over to his rocker, while the liaison parlayed with his wife in the kitchen. He was smartly dressed with a plaid button down and a pair of loafers that looked to have been shined in the last several days. His eyes were sharp beneath hooded lids and he waved me over to sit next to him. I quickly introduced myself and explained the purpose of our visit, thanking him for his service in the Army. He thanked me profusely for honoring him and as he shook my hand he asked me if I had time to hear a story. I told him I’d be honored at which point he relaxed into his chair, exhaled softly and recanted the most desperate moments of his life.

The valor of war

His story began the day his rifle troop was tasked with taking the beach at Iwo Jima. He remembered the crew’s tense mood as they waited for the attack order to come down. As the captain of the rifle troop, he felt intense pressure to keep everyone safe. He remembered being unable to sleep as the Naval convoy softened up the beaches in advance of the amphibious troop landing. Finally, the order was given and the team boarded their transport. He recounted the heavy surf they encountered from the large fleet of boats making their way to the beach and the heavy shells singing overhead from the Navy destroyers pounding the fortified cliffs off the beach. The air inside the troop transport stank of fear, urine and cordite as the 50 caliber on top of the troop transport screamed in defiance at the manmade hell awaiting them on the beach ahead. 

As they steamed towards the beach, the men huddled together beneath the steel decking of the transport for a bit of solitude and cover. Some whispered prayers while others screamed obscenities, each trying to find a measure of peace against the cacophony of sound and heavy sea spray. They neared the beach and the transport came under fire, bringing the men’s fear to a boil. Bullets could be heard pinging off the craft’s hull while others screamed overhead with their telltale whine. Suddenly, the beach was there. The men scrambled to their feet waiting for the ramp to drop. He remembered his best friend was right in front of him. The ramp came down and they made eye contact as a hail of bullets pierced the void left by the ramp. Instantly, half his crew was killed. As his best friend fell, he grabbed him and dragged him through the surf behind what little shelter he could find on the beach. He recalled a feeling of being stung in his right calf as he pulled his best friend behind the smoking hull of a jeep that had been cleaved in two by a mortar round. Desperately, he packed his friend’s chest wound in an attempt to stem the bleeding and stayed with him until he took his last breath. Alone, wounded and terrified, he remembered the angelic face of a medic who somehow materialized out of the maelstrom around him, treated his wounds and dragged him to better cover. Later he learned that only two members of his troop made it through that day.

Lasting impact

As he re-lived his story in front of me, I’ll never forget the tears that flowed freely down his cheeks. Time does not diminish our most painful moments and 60 years seemed like only yesterday as he shared his story. Upon finishing, he wiped his eyes and thanked me again for honoring him. He told me he never received a purple heart for his injuries and never once did he let it bother him. Unlike the rest of his troop, he made it home alive and that was thanks enough. Upon returning home, his girlfriend proposed to him and a month later they were married. Many, many years later here they were, still deeply in love and enjoying the time they had together.

I’ll never forget that visit. I wished I’d taped our conversation and provided it to his two living sons as a keepsake. We owe these Veterans our gratitude. The We Honor Veterans program at Kansas City Hospice is a blessing not only to those we honor, but also to those involved. This visit enriched my life and I am grateful for the opportunity this organization provides to honor those who defended our freedom. I hope all of you get the opportunity to do the same. 

Post a comment below to honor a Veteran who is close to you or tell a short story about your own personal Veteran experience. Happy Veterans Day!

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  1. Judi Purcell on November 9, 2021 at 4:48 pm

    My Uncle Frank was my godfather and very special. He was a conscientious objector who served as a medic in the war and served on the beach of Normandy during the invasion there. He rarely spoke of the war but it took its toll emotionally on him for the rest of his life. He will always be my hero.

    • Kansas City Hospice on November 17, 2021 at 8:16 am

      Judi, we appreciate you sharing the fond memory of your Uncle Frank. We have such gratitude for the sacrifices and dedication our service men and women have made for us, then and now.

  2. Debbie Murchison Perri on November 9, 2021 at 6:03 pm

    Mr. Wiley,
    I have volunteered with Solace House and on the Compassionate Presence team and I want to thank you for this informative read and for hosting the Veterans Day ceremony this week. My son was killed in Iraq and since that moment, any and all who have served, will have my utmost respect, as we as Americans, should.
    Thank you again for honoring our Veterans.

    Debbie Murchison Perri

    • Kansas City Hospice on November 17, 2021 at 7:58 am

      Debbie, Thank you for sharing your story of loss and allowing us to be part of your journey. At Kansas City Hospice we care about our Veterans and their families and strive to meet their unique needs. I’d like to also thank you for your volunteer support at Solace House and as a Compassionate Presence team member. Your help is essential to our success and touches so many families. Sending you wishes of peace and comfort as you grieve the death of such a special person.

      All my best, David

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