Point of View

They also served: Honor all our veterans

November 10, 2012 

My grandfather was a member of the 299th Engineer Combat Battalion during World War II. Although this unit wasn’t one of the most celebrated, its story is remarkable. The original 299th Engineers was activated in March 1943. It was almost entirely comprised of soldiers from upstate New York; many of the unit’s young members had known each other their entire lives, and there must have been a special kind of camaraderie among them.

That history added another layer to the unit’s already difficult mission: The soldiers of the 299th Engineers were responsible for clearing explosives in the ocean and at the Normandy coast to allow U.S. troops to invade France. It was essentially a suicide mission. The unit arrived at Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and worked under heavy enemy fire, with little food or sleep, until June 9. During those days, the battalion suffered approximately 33 percent casualties. My grandfather survived and was awarded two Purple Hearts.

My grandfather was a hero. But so are all of our veterans, including the millions living now and all those who are no longer with us. When we honor our veterans on this Veterans Day, we need to remember not just those who served in combat, but all those who made that selfless commitment to join the military and serve their country.

My grandfather seldom spoke about his military service and never spoke about the wartime horrors he must have experienced. It wasn’t until his death in 2004 that I learned about his unit and its role in the war. I regretted waiting so long to learn about this part of his life.

Although I was interested in the dramatic stories and adventures, I also would have liked to know more of the ordinary aspects of his experiences. Why did he voluntarily enlist in the Army? What was daily life like? What did he miss most about civilian life, and what did he enjoy about the military? Was it difficult to readjust to civilian life after the war? What would he want me to know about his service?

Several years ago, I sat down with nearly 30 World War II veterans to interview them for a book I was writing. I talked to fighter pilots, sailors and soldiers. I talked to men who had to bail out of airplanes – one becoming a prisoner of war in Germany – and men who saw heavy combat in some of the war’s most notorious battles.

But I also talked to men who served in a cargo resupply squadron, a bakery unit, a laundry company and on a refrigerator provisions ship. I talked to a typographic drafter, a photograph interpreter and a correspondent for Stars and Stripes, the armed forces newspaper. I talked to a dentist who served aboard Navy ships and a medical student who helped treat traumatized soldiers.

Each veteran with whom I spoke played an important role in the war, and each story provides invaluable insights into the realities of war. It was an honor and privilege to hear their stories and to have the opportunity to share them with others.

In our culture, we tend to privilege war stories that contain descriptions of combat, danger and bloodshed. We like tales of soldiers rushing the beaches, storming enemy hideaways and emerging triumphantly.

But these events are rare – even in times of war. Realistic depictions of military life include mostly monotony, highlighted by action. Perhaps that’s what makes the other stories exceptional. But why don’t we also know about those, like my grandfather, who put their own lives at risk so that others could accomplish their missions? What about the men and women who, like many of the veterans in my book, serve in bakery, laundry, resupply, medical and other important units who work to provide necessities and comforts for their comrades?

We need to hear their stories too.

Although their experiences may vary, the men and women in our military are united by their dedicated, selfless service. They all face challenges and make sacrifices. They all deserve our attention, appreciation and admiration. This Veterans Day, let’s remember all of our heroes.

Julie B. Wiest is an assistant professor of communication at High Point University. Her book is “We Were There.”

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