SERVING OUR VETERANS: Take time to ask our veterans
Recently, Terry Jelsing, a Vietnam Era veteran, loaned me his book titled “The Final Battle: An Untold Story of WWII’s Forty-Second Rainbow Division.” It was written by William George Hansult, Jr. His father, Wiliam Hansult, was an infantry soldier with this Rainbow Division. This regiment made the final swoop through countries like France, Belgium, Austria, and finally Germany to bring an end to World War II. They fought in hand-to-hand combat against the Germans in many bombed out cities. At the end, they liberated Holocaust survivors in Nazi death camps. Although victorious, the Forty-Second Rainbow Division saw the very worst of war and suffered many casualties. The author of this book was not aware of what his father had endured until he was in his mid-sixties and his father in his eighties. His father rarely ever spoke of his war experiences. Late in his life he finally opened up to his son and shared in more detail events he had seen and events he had been directly involved in. This is very true of the majority of war veterans.
In fact, Terry Jelsing’s father, Quentin Jelsing, was also a soldier with the Forty-Second Rainbow Division during World War II. Like the author of the book, Terry’s father spoke little of his war experience, although he suffered from it the rest of his life. It was not until Terry read this book that he finally grasped what his father had gone through as an infantry man with this unit.
I believe most of us can relate to this in one way or another. Most of us have had family members who have served in our Armed Forces, during times of war and times of peace. They all have stories and memories to share. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the veteran passes away and then we think about all the questions we wish we would have asked about their military experience. I know this is the case with both my wife and I. Both our fathers served in the Army during World War II and both have passed away quite some time ago. Now, we always wish we would have asked them to share more of their military experiences with us.
This is not only true for veterans who are close family members, but also true of our friends and acquaintances who are both living and deceased veterans. Last month I attended the funeral of an old family friend and neighbor who I had known my entire life. His name was Herbert Beyer. He was a World War II Navy veteran and a member of my hometown American Legion Post. He died at the age of 98. This is all I really knew about his military background other than the fact I understood he had one of his ships sunk during battle. A few years ago, I visited Herbie at his sparsely decorated apartment. There on his family room wall was a photo of a ship and a photo of him and his fellow shipmates. When I asked him about the photos, he briefly and rather emotionally, explained this was the ship he was on that was sunk and the men were the survivors. At his funeral, this photo of the ship was in the background of the funeral service bulletin. The ship was the destroyer USS Leary. I did some research on this destroyer and found additional information on its complete life history. On December 24, 1943, while in the North Atlantic, near Iceland, and during a terrible storm, the ship was struck three times by torpedoes fired from a German submarine. It went down in 20 minutes, taking 98 seamen with it. There were 59 survivors, including Herbie. This was all new and more detailed information I had ever known about Herbie’s war experience. I can’t imagine, when one thinks about the storms one faces during our life, how it could not get much worse than what Herbie experienced on Christmas Eve, 1943.
One may ask, why should we as American citizens have a need to know about the personal experiences of our military veterans? What is the value of this knowledge? First, I believe asking our veterans helps them realize we are interested in their experiences and care about them. Though some may not want to talk about it, I believe they will still sense our appreciation for what they have done for our country and is an expression of gratitude and thanks. Secondly, it helps us better understand and appreciate the sacrifices they have made to protect and defend the freedom and liberties we enjoy today. It is just another way to honor them for all they have done for us. Asking them share their story has a benefit to both them and us.
So, I encourage all of you to not hesitate to ask veterans about their military experiences. Don’t let this opportunity slip away while you still have the time to do this, before the veteran passes away. If we don’t, we end up saying, “I wish I would have asked.” Our only consolation waiting until then is the comfort, like Herbie Beyer had, knowing that because of their faith, their ship is now anchored in a peaceful and eternal harbor, with their God as Captain of their ship. And He will never let them go. May this be our promise to our veterans as well.
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