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Friday, November 11, 2005
Grandpa and Veterans Day

I have neighbors who fought in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, and some who will likely be called to leave their families and fight again. My boss flew fighters for the Air Force in Vietnam. My father, my father-in-law, and my mother's oldest brother served during the Korean War. My father's oldest brother served during World War II as a Navy cook on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. All of these survived, but many of their comrades were not so fortunate. To all of them and to all their comrades, I am grateful.

But when I think of Veterans Day, I mostly think of my mother's father. He survived World War I. At least most of him did.

Grandpa was part of the "Lost Battalion," about 600 men of the 77th Infantry Division who were surrounded by German forces in the Argonne Forest in 1918. They had advanced in the belief than a French unit was guarding their flank, but that was not true. Isolated for six days and short of food, water, and ammunition, they fought off numerous attacks, communicating only by carrier pigeon. Both sides' artillery shelled them, but they held their position -- not that they had much choice. By the time other Allied units were able to advance and rescue them, two-thirds of them were dead.

My grandpa was among the living, when it was over. I never heard him speak of this, not even on the day when my cousin and I found his old infantry rifle in a storage building on the family farm. He would occasionally hold forth about the political and economic evils wrought by FDR and his heirs in later decades, but, apparently, he never said much to any of his family about those six days in the Argonne Forest.

By the time I came along, he was a cranky old man. I was afraid of him, but he never lifted a finger -- never raised more than a rare cross word -- to give me any reason to fear or dislike him. I have wondered how much of what I saw in him began in the Argonne Forest.

He returned home from Europe and spent the rest of his days scratching out a modest existence as a farmer and sheepherder. He married a remarkable woman, and they raised eight children, including my mother. He didn't go to church much, but was happy enough that the rest of the family did. I wonder if those days in the Argonne Forest left him on strained terms with God; I could hardly blame him if part of him, especially that part of him, died that week along with 400 of his comrades.

Of course, I never learned any of this firsthand. Even if he would have told me, which is anything but certain, I would not have heard and appreciated. I was a child, rather too full of myself and my own childish concerns to comprehend the old man, who always seemed to be either sitting at the table in the kitchen of that old five-room farmhouse or shuffling out to do chores among the cattle and the haystacks. When I was a child, I read many dozens of books about the air and sea battles in World War II; even if Grandpa wouldn't have told me his own history, I wish that I had read just one history book about an earlier war, about the Lost Battalion, while he was still alive.

Had I done so, perhaps I would have begun much earlier to appreciate his sacrifice on my behalf. Then I might have done the one thing I now most wish I had done, while he yet lived: I might have thanked him for what he did 46 years before I was born, and for whatever it was he endured for the rest of his life as a result.

Of those who have fought and died, and those who have fought and lived, and those who have waited for them almost forever, and those for whom the waiting has never ended, I have but two words: Thank you.

Make that four words. Thank God.

David Rodeback comments:

The original version of this post had one of my uncles serving in the wrong war; I have corrected the error.

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