U.S. veterans, their friends, families and other Cary residents sang quietly Wednesday, reflecting on the men and women who served their country, as “The Star-Spangled Banner” bellowed from the tubas and trombones of the Old North State Brass Band.
Some of the young children and grandchildren of those service members played in the sunlight at Cary’s Veterans Freedom Park on North Harrison Avenue for the town’s official Veterans Day commemoration.
Beneath the park’s Freedom Tower, Cary resident Saskia Leary, 70, honored U.S. soldiers by recounting how they saved her life and the lives of countless Dutch citizens in 1945. She called the story “Shoes from Heaven.”
In 1940, German troops invaded the Netherlands, five years before Leary was born.
“Almost five years later, the Dutch were exhausted and very hungry,” Leary said. “Stores were almost empty, and there was very little growing on the frozen fields.”
To ration what little food was left, families had to register to receive food stamps, which proved to be unsafe for Jewish families.
“Many Jewish families tried to hide from the Germans and left their homes and everything behind,” Leary said.
But Leary’s father, Sikpe Visser, was involved in the Dutch resistance and helped Jewish families find host families. People who provided a hiding place needed extra food stamps to feed their guests, so Visser later started a job at the food stamps printing office in order to illegally duplicate more than 250,000 food stamps. Doing so saved many from starvation.
“My father was a risk-taker (and) an accomplished burglar because all the illegal activities took place after business hours,” Leary said. “His group nicknamed him ‘The Boss.’ The Germans referred to him as ‘The Bandit.’ ”
Near the end of 1944, the Gestapo showed up at Visser’s door and transported him to the Vught, a Dutch concentration camp, where he was later executed.
When Leary was born in January 1945, her family struggled to survive and had to burn books and furniture to keep warm during what would be later known as the “Hunger Winter.”
But a few months later, American troops dropped much needed packages of food and clothes from airplanes during Operations Manna and Chowhound. One of those packages, marked “Baby,” was given to her mother.
“It contained clothes, dried milk and little white shoes – all leather and made in the U.S.A.,” Leary said. “The shoes from heaven.”
Leary didn’t know the story behind her baby shoes until she was older.
“My mom did not want to talk about the war, not even about the shoes, and I was afraid to ask questions, because I knew that it would make her feel sad,” Leary said.
Much like Leary’s mother, some veterans and other survivors of war don’t like to talk about or relive their experiences.
Cary Mayor Pro Tem Jack Smith, who was born in Germany, said his mother went through many difficult times that she wouldn’t speak to him about until much later in life. With so many young children present at Wednesday’s event, Smith and retired Navy Rear Adm. Steve Glass encouraged veterans to connect with the younger generation and vice versa.
“On Veterans Day and every day, let’s celebrate the troops, our veterans, their families,” Glass said. “Let’s listen to their stories. Our children must learn about the sacrifices made by veterans and why they are free.”
But beyond thanking veterans for their service, Glass encouraged attendees to do more, particularly to help those suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. About 11 percent of those who served in Afghanistan and about 20 percent of people who served in Iraq suffer from PTSD, according to the U.S. Department Veterans Affairs. A higher percentage of Vietnam War veterans are affected.
“PTSD is very real,” Glass said. “As a result, veterans often struggle to deal with the transition to civilian life. Veterans are unemployed at a disproportionately high rate. We need to look after our people who are suffering.”
Glass suggested helping by supporting veterans organizations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion and Vietnam Veterans of America.
“Organizations that have as its purpose ... to help veterans walk again, talk again, work again, love again, live again,” Glass said. “We can and we must do more.”
Kathryn Trogdon; 919-460-2608; @KTrogdon