EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 10, 2012

Column: Best way to honor veterans is to remember what they did

Keith Kappes
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Uncle Richard and I were 3,000 miles apart on that Sunday morning in May 2004.

While vacationing with my wife in Seattle, I picked up the Sunday issue of the Seattle newspaper.

It had a big photo spread on a group of veterans visiting the new World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.

One photo showed about 200 persons with several men and one woman in wheelchairs. For some reason, I looked closely and then did a double take.

I called to my wife to tell her I had found a picture of my uncle in the newspaper. She said it must be someone else.

His image on the newspaper page was small and my eyesight isn’t the best but I knew instantly that it was him, a bear of a man with bad knees, sitting in that wheelchair.

I read the photo caption about 66 of Carter County, Kentucky’s World War II vets and 184 family members and others who escorted them.

They had ridden 500 miles in chartered buses to see our national monument to themselves and their comrades who saved the world from Hitler and Hirohito.

Proudly, I read how the people of Carter County raised $50,000 to finance the trip.

I began to understand why WWII vets were described by Tom Brokaw as members of the “Greatest Generation.”

More importantly, I realized that my uncle was a brave man who survived the deadly jungle warfare of the South Pacific as an Army infantryman.

And, like millions of other U. S. soldiers, he came home, got married, raised a family, and worked hard to make a living and to have a share of the American dream.

He seldom, if ever, talked about his wartime experiences.

Now, eight years after the Washington trip, Uncle Richard, 89, has even less mobility and often has trouble with his memory.

Several of the vets who made the trip in 2004 are gone. He and others are in nursing homes. Time is taking a toll.

The war ended 67 years ago. A 19-year-old soldier in 1945 is now 86, far beyond average life expectancy. Many vets are in their 90s.

The VA says fewer than 2 million of the 16 million WWII vets are still living. They are dying at the rate of about 900 per day.

As we honor all veterans, shouldn’t we be collecting photos and other souvenirs from those still with us?

What about oral histories of their remembrances from that great war?

Thanks, Uncle Richard, you’ll always be my hero.

Keith Kappes is a columnist for The Morehead, Ky., News.