Since I founded the Free State Foundation in 2006, this is the seventh Memorial Day message I’ve written. You can find links to the others at the end. More than most others, this is a bit more personal.
I want to relate two different stories from two different times – but both in the spirit of honor and remembrance on Memorial Day.
First. From 1969 – 1975, I served in the U. S. Army Reserve as a medical corpsman. After completing basic training at Fort Polk and medical corpsman training at Fort Sam Houston, aside from two weeks on duty each summer, for five and a half years I spent one weekend a month on duty, first at Womack Army Hospital at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and then at Walter Reed Army Hospital in D.C. About 75% of this hospital time, especially during the first three years, consisted of cleaning and dressing all manner of wounds suffered by soldiers returning from Vietnam.
I don’t want to suggest, of course, that you need to have had this personal experience to be very troubled by the reported doctored records and delays at the Veterans Administration hospitals. But having personally seen so many soldiers returning from battle maimed, I want to say here, on Memorial Day, that whatever problems exist in the VA hospital system – and they seem serious – need to be fixed, and as quickly as possible. This should not be a partisan issue. It is rather a matter of a nation respecting and honoring the service of its veterans.
Second. My father served in the Army in WWII as a warrant officer in the 68th Armored Infantry Battalion of the 14th Armored Division of the Seventh Army. He was in charge of a transportation unit responsible for trucking supplies and food from behind the lines up to the front – and then bringing back the dead and wounded.
On the side of each of the trucks in my father’s unit was painted: "Norma I," "Norma II," "Norma III," "Norma IV," and so forth. Norma was my mother. She was 19 when she and my father got married a few months before he shipped out for Europe.
There is something important about the trucks named "Norma," and the men who drove the trucks. In 1997, when my father was 80 years old, he told me this story, as I related in a 1998 piece published in the Potomac Review:
Dad retuned to his suitcase and pulled out three photographic prints of his entire company, seventy-nine men in all. He pointed to a soldier next to him, a warrant officer named Norman Wemple, and in a voice with an almost imperceptible quiver, stated, “he got blown up by a direct hit in March 1945 while driving Norma II. Norman was one of my best buddies in our company and a damn good mechanic too.”
There was a sudden stillness in the room. A moment later, Dad spoke up: “I still think about how that could’ve been me instead of Norman. I was driving Norma I about fifteen yards right in front of his truck on the day he got hit, but sometimes Norman drove first and I followed him, it just depended.”
“Depended on what?”
“Depended on who got his truck started first,” Dad said.
That was what happened one day in March 1945, but it was a day just like many others in a long war in which over 400,000 Americans gave their lives in the cause of fighting tyranny. Within a month, the war in Europe finally was over. My father arrived back in the States in July 1945.
For Norman Wemple, and for all the others like him who have sacrificed their lives throughout our history in the service of our country, and for all those who have returned wounded in body or spirit, please remember and honor them this Memorial Day.
PS. Now, last. June 6 marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. I recently had the privilege of viewing a screening of the remarkable new movie, “D-Day Normandy 1944,” written and directed by Pascal Vuong and narrated by Tom Brokaw. You can view the trailer here. The number of surviving WWII vets is diminishing rapidly – they are dying at a rate of about 555 a day. So each new generation of Americans must be educated anew regarding the meaning of June 6, 1944, a day that Mr. Brokaw said could easily be called, “the day that saved the world.” I recommend viewing the film as one part of such education and for the sake of remembering those who died that day.