In a normal year, this day would have had plenty of ceremonies, parades and other activities to remember, thank and pay tribute to the brave men and women of the armed forces.
But 2020 will go in the books as the year of the coronavirus – and most of the above mentioned shifted to mainly virtual.
Regardless, it’s a day that crosses every race, creed, gender, political affiliation, etc. Veterans Day is universal, something that is shared through the heart, through the soul.
So, allow me to share snippets of stories of three heroes — three men who showed courage and resilience even after their service. Three men, who carried the burdens of war all through their lives.
Three men who remain very dear to my heart.
And in case you’re wondering, I do know the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day – but the stories of these men need no holiday hook.
A veteran is a veteran, no matter where they live.
They called him Joe
Right before Christmas 2006, I spent a great deal of time with Joe Morrison, a Korean War veteran from Missouri.
Morrison was a member of the Army’s 2nd Infantry division, which was part of the United Nations’ multination contingency under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. The unit battled a 70,000-strong Chinese Army in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
Morrison’s “home” from 1950 to 1953 was the Pyok Tong prison camp in North Korea. “One thousand days with life on hold,” he told me during one of our visits over coffee, was the sum of his captivity. He said he had seen his comrades wither away and die inside the prison camp. Those who were left encouraged each other with the thought they couldn’t die because “we will all go home.”
His experiences as a POW did not sting as much as when he came home to his roots: He thought everything would be better.
With tears in his eyes, Morrison, a black man, said: “I’m a Missouri farm boy raised on a farm. I’ve been shot on that battlefield, almost died, held prisoner, and yet the most devastating thing when I came home was I could not ride on the front of the bus.”
He was 78 when he died in 2010.
In 2006, my dream of being face-to-face with a Navajo Code talker came to fruition when I met Sgt. Allen Dale June, who was one of the 29 original Navajo men enlisted by the Marines to serve in the Pacific Theater.
June was the oldest of 13 children and worked at a windmill on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. He joined the Marine Corps in 1942, telling the Marines he was 19, when he actually was only 16.
Several hundred Navajos served as Code Talkers during the war, but a group of 29 that included June developed the code based on their native language. Information about their role in the war wasn’t declassified until 1968.
The code, during the war, was never broken. The Code Talkers took part in every assault the Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945.
June told me he was disappointed in the 2002 movie “Windtalkers” because it was portrayed like a “walk on the beach and was too glamorous.”
His wife, Virginia, said a Hollywood production company in 2001 offered June $500 for the rights to his story and use of his photos. Needless to say, the old warrior was insulted.
“That’s when he went underground, so to speak, and never really talked about his experiences,” Virginia June told me.
For a time in 2005, the Junes were left with no money and no place to stay. They slept in a laundromat in Longmont, Colorado.
After being kicked out there, the couple sought other places to spend the night, sometimes behind bushes and under a bridge. The American Legion in Longmont found out and gave the couple a mobile home to stay in.
June never received veterans’ benefits from the time he was discharged from the Marines until 2005.
He died in a veterans hospital in Arizona in 2010.
In late 2006, I developed a friendship with Homer Kroeger, then 86, who was once a private under the Army’s 90th Infantry Division. On June 6, 1944, Kroeger along with thousands of soldiers stormed Utah Beach in Normandy, France, part of the second of four waves of attack on D-Day.
“We had a hell of a time,” Kroeger said when I last visited him in an assisted living facility in northeast Colorado. “I have seen guys that were hurt cry all night before they die. War is a hell of a thing.”
Years after the war, Kroeger fell in and out of depression. He had no one to turn to when his younger brother died.
His home — before his fellow veterans placed him in the assisted living center — had no heat or water. He slept on the kitchen floor with nothing but coats and dirty clothes as a mattress.
He wore the same clothes every day for several months at a time and, for a time, he wandered the streets.
On at least two occasions, the man who almost died in Normandy and during the Battle of the Bulge, was thrown out of an eatery because of his odor.
In early 2000, Kroeger was walking on a street in a northeast Colorado town, when he fell ill. A police officer found him and took him to the hospital. One of his eyes was infected and his vision was compromised.
Doctors operated on his eye infection and, during that time, fellow veterans, some of whom fought with him at the Bulge, came to his aid and got his veterans benefits started.
He didn’t have any memorabilia of his days in the military, not even his Purple Heart.
The only possession of note he had when he died in 2008 was his bed at the assisted living center.
Editor’s note: The context of this story was originally published on Nov. 11, 2019.
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