Friday, November 11, 2011

Veterans Day


According to the most recent U.S. Census data, there are almost 22 million veterans living in America right now. Today, we celebrate them. Originally established as Armistice Day on November 11, 1919 to commemorate the first anniversary of the armistice of the Great War (as it was then known, prior to WW II), Veterans Day became what it is today in 1954 under President Eisenhower. So the history goes way back.

I’m reminded on this day of my Grampa Juraska. He fought in WW II as an Army buck Sergeant, a heavy machine gunner. The weapon system that his fire team used was the legendary Ma Duece—the M2 .50 cal. It’s still in service today, largely unchanged. My Grampa was in charge of the massively heavy tripod for this gun, as well as some of the ammo—I imagine every member of the team carried ammo—and his unit fought in Italy.

Italy was what Churchill called the “soft underbelly” of the Axis powers, and he was right. The Italians were largely fair weather friends to the Nazis, and Mussolini only became an attack dog when he felt it suited him because of easy prey. As a result, the Italians didn’t bring their A game, especially in Africa. Erwin Rommel, the 'Desert Fox,' said about the Italians, "Certainly they are no good at war." But after we beat the bastards, Germans included, back to El Alamein it was pretty obvious that our next move would be across the Med to Italy, so the Italians dug in and called their Nazi friends again for help.

sketch of the terrain at Salerno
At Salerno, where my Grampa fought, the battle went back and forth for days, and the terrain was nasty. Steep rocky ravines forced the battle into tight spaces where combatants relied mostly on speed and skill and fate. According to the story my Grampa told me years ago—only once—his team was maneuvering through one of these ravines to try to get into position and he lost his footing. He slipped and fell, the heavy tripod landing on him and knocking him out cold.

He awoke to probably four or five Germans encircling him at gunpoint, I can’t remember what he told me. The rest of his team was gone. He dealt with that abandonment for the rest of his life. He would, however, spend the next nineteen months of it in a Nazi POW camp in Germany, sleeping on dung and peeling potatoes. He really hated potatoes if I remember right.

And while this isn’t Memorial Day, remembering my Grampa is perfectly appropriate. He’s gone on to sleep until the Day of the coming of the Lord, but his example to me lives on in my own life. I was lucky, blessed, fortunate to have him in my life. My Grampa Juraska tought me about manhood. He taught me about manly virtues like honor and severity and fortitude. He taught me how to catch and gut a fish. How to change my oil, rotate my tires. And he was the one man in my life that I was thinking of when I became a U.S. Marine, because I wanted his approval; I wanted to see the look in his eyes that meant we shared something that can’t be put into words.

And I got that from him. When I came home on leave from boot camp, Grampa and I sat and talked about life in a way we never had before. I will always remember. I knew that he saw me different now; man to man even though I was only nineteen.

I’ll never forget my Grampa. He was a husband, father, working man, Army Sergeant, POW, bronze star recipient and World War II veteran. He was my Grampa, and I love him still. Thank God for our brave veterans. Thanks to Sgt. Albin Juraska's example, I am one too. Remember us today.