I think of them often, but Memorial Day is always a good time to make public how much we love our heroes. I wanted to take a minute today to tell you about the military heroes in my family (in the last 3 generations, anyway) . . .
Eugene Wiedling (6/29/1932 – 6/1/2004)
My grandpa was a bit lucky because he was just too young for World War II, and just too old for Vietnam. He told me that he enlisted in the Air Force because he wanted to fly and see the world. Instead, he got to guard Thule Air Force Base in Greenland during the Korean War. He told me it was boring as heck up there, and that it wasn’t green, and that he didn’t really like living on an iceberg. But somebody had to do it. He never really told me any stories about being there, so I don’t know what life was like for him on the base. . . except for boring. He told me he did a lot of guard duty and walked around a lot. But there is one very important thing that happened because my grandfather was stuck in Greenland: he and his best buddy were so bored and lonely up there that they swapped addresses of their girls back home to write to. . . and that’s how he met my Grandma. So I’m pretty glad he went, or I wouldn’t be writing this today. I don’t have a picture of him in uniform (although I’ve seen it and he was quite handsome!), so this is one of my favorites of the two of us. I should point out that my birthday is the day before his, because I was a C-section and my mom’s doctor was going on vacation the next day; I’ve always held the impression that Grandpa was disappointed, but I’m not sure he really cared. 🙂
My uncle joined the Navy and became a Wizard. He lived on Guam for most of his years in the service and he swears he was never on a ship, but he would disappear sometimes for more than a month, so we’ve never quite believed him. We know he tracked submarines during the Cold War, but that’s about it. That’s because Wizards are sworn to secrecy for years and years. So some sort of cool information gathering stuff. What I remember most about my Uncle David’s years in the Navy is that his name was golden to me. I learned to find Guam on our globe by putting my finger on the word “Philippines” and then moving it over to the right about two inches past the S. One year he sent me a special “to my niece” card for Valentine’s Day that had a page that punched out into a little jigsaw puzzle. I must have been about 5. I cherished that card, and still have it somewhere. A lot has happened since then to and with my uncle, but he will always be my first hero.
John Rupe (6/8/1925 – 4/8/2006)
My Grandpa Rupe enlisted into the Army during World War II, and became a Sergeant field medic for the 20th Infantry Regiment (later renamed the 6th Infantry Division). I believe that my Grandpa Rupe had the kind of war experience that they make movies out of. His division was deployed to the Asia-Pacific Campaign. I know that he participated in the Battle of Bataan and the Philippines Campaign, and I’m pretty sure he mentioned New Guinea at one point or another. Grandpa had some strong less-than-complimentary opinions of General MacArthur, and told me that the famous picture of him wading to shore at Leyte was staged after the battle – no soldier let his feet get wet like that right before a battle! But Grandpa HATED talking about the war; I don’t know if he had any “war buddies,” but I never heard of him getting together with any. I know that he sometimes still had nightmares, even 50 years later, and he told me once that his best friend was killed and he couldn’t save him. As a medic, I’m sure that my grandfather saw gruesome things most every day, and watched more painful deaths than he could count. Grandpa’s job was to run into the battle and pull out the injured, and I know he did this to the best of his ability. We told him often that he was a hero to us, and this made him angry. Finally one day he half shouted, “I wasn’t trying to be a hero! I was just trying to stay alive as long as I could, and do what I could to keep my friends alive!” Knowing what I know now about the mind and emotions and the power of memories and the scarring of pain, I understand his gruffness so much better. I wish I had understood then.
We did coerce Grandpa into sharing a few stories toward the end of his life. I have a few recorded that I need to type up, but here is my favorite: Grandpa’s unit had been staying for awhile in bunkers in some dry hot place. There was some sort of skin infection that was spreading through the soldiers that caused open sores. The air was so hot that the sores would dry out. The only thing the medics had to treat them was dry sulfa powder that kept falling right out of the wounds. Some of the sores developed gangrene, and I think some limbs had to be amputated. Finally my Grandpa had the brilliant idea of mixing the sulfa powder with petroleum jelly (Vaseline) so that it would stick to their dry wounds and keep the skin moist and more absorbent. It worked, and the sores healed right up!! When my Grandpa told me this story I ran to the medicine cabinet and pulled out some antibiotic ointment; ingredients: petroleum jelly, sulphates, and some other stuff. My Grandpa invented Antibiotic Ointment and didn’t even know it!!
My cousin Eliot is our current family hero. He is a proud member of the United States Air Force, for whom he wears the distinguished red beret of the Special Ops Pararescuemen. (Think Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, etc.) Basically, his job is to get military men and women to safety by whatever means necessary. I remember when he was in high school dreaming of this elite job and talking excitedly about jumping out of airplanes. Almost exactly a year ago I cuddled with my Cuz while he told me about his training and how worried he was that he would forget important things when he needed them most. I knew he wouldn’t, and I told him so. I saw a special maturity in him; his idealistic and naive excitement had developed into the commitment and determination of a man, of a soldier, a defender for whom I am eternally grateful, a cousin I am so proud to call my own. In the past year he endured a 6-month deployment somewhere in “The Theater.” I don’t know where he went or what he did, but I’m sure he made a huge difference to someone every day. I’m also sure that he is changed because of it.
Eliot, my uncle, my grandfathers. . . they didn’t just give their years of service. Their service changed them and affected every moment of the rest of their lives. None are perfect men by any stretch of the imagination. But despite their faults, they have chosen to give of themselves and their minds and their families and their lives . . . for us, for our nation, for our freedom, for sheer gratitude that they can. They don’t care to be heroes . . . they care only to serve every day, to do the best they can at their job, to keep themselves and their buddies alive as long as possible. That spirit of selflessness is what most makes them heroes.
For this, I honor them.