Jacques Michienzi tries not to think too much about fighting in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Memorial Day, however, means a lot to Michienzi, 91, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and a self-described people person.
Michienzi said the memories of those who didn’t make it home can make him fall to pieces if he isn’t careful.
“You hear sometimes that war is hell. Sometimes, I like to think it’s worse than that,” he said at the Chapel Hill retirement community where he lives. “I have lost a lot of soldiers, and people who were seriously wounded, and … had given a lot to the country and to our people.”
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Across the country today, Americans will honor those men and women who have died serving in our nation’s armed forces. Families will decorate the graves of fallen loved ones, flags will fly at half-staff until noon and patriotic parades will proceed in cities and towns.
Like many veterans, Michienzi generally shies away from talking about his service. In the past year since he moved to Carolina Meadows, though, he has gotten to know fellow resident Sam Ligon, who said he learned of Michienzi’s military honors and sent him a letter asking if they could meet up.
“We met for coffee, and we must have spent two hours. He just opened up to me,” Ligon said. “We’re so honored to have Jacques as one of the residents here.”
A leader in battle
Born in 1923 in St. Paul, Minn., Michienzi was the son of two first-generation Italian immigrants. Michienzi’s father got gassed pretty badly while fighting in World War I, he said, and he never talked about his time in the military. He died at 49.
As a leader of infantry, Michienzi said, he focused on making sure his troops survived their time in combat. Michienzi tends to form deep connections to others, he said, and that proved to be a mixed blessing on the battlefield.
For instance, whenever recruits who had never seen combat came under his command, Michienzi said, he did what he could to make them as comfortable as possible. He could see the fear in their eyes, and he would take care to place them alongside more seasoned soldiers.
Michienzi would tell the rookies that their job was to destroy the enemy, he said, and it was his job to make sure they got home alive and without any serious wounds.
“My senior officers didn’t like to say they would get you home safely because it’s not true all the time,” Michienzi said.
That same compassion made it tough for Michienzi when his unit did suffer casualities. When Michienzi applied for disability from the Department of Veterans Affairs, it surprised him to see he had a 100 percent evaluation for post-traumatic stress disorder. Combined with his physical injuries, the VA evaluated Michienzi at a total of 210 percent disability.
Michienzi had never heard of PTSD, but the diagnosis seemed to fit. Groups often ask Michienzi to speak about his service, he said, but he usually turns them down because the topic makes him too emotional. It can even embarrass him.
Michienzi was thrust into his first leadership role during WWII, when he fought in Europe as a paratrooper with the 17th Airborne Division. His unit went into the Battle of the Bulge with about 160 men and came out with no more than 28, he said. In addition to those killed and wounded in action, he said, many fell because they lacked proper equipment to weather the bitter German winter.
The casualties included two officers, and Michienzi stepped up to become a platoon leader.
‘I wasn’t a desk man’
Michienzi kept that experience as a G.I. in mind when he later earned commission as an officer, he said. He never asked his soldiers to do anything that he would not do himself. In fact, he often accompanied his troops into combat when he could have chosen to stay behind.
“I learned that from being an enlisted man and a sergeant. If they’re there, why can’t I be there?” he said.
As he got older, Michienzi said, the Army gave him many opportunities to serve off the battlefield, but he never liked the idea of working in an office.
“I wasn’t a desk man,” he said.“I felt a sense of human accomplishment being with people.”
Today, Michienzi lives with his wife of 59 years, Dody, at Carolina Meadows. The retirement community keeps a display in one of its common areas of Michienzi’s many medals and photos from his years of service.
Michienzi remembers the smallest details about his time in the military. He can tell you the caliber of machine guns mounted on a certain vehicle, and he has a particular knack for knowing people’s names and hometowns. When Michienzi speaks, his high level of energy commands attention. He engages you with eye contact, and he uses broad hand gestures to emphasize his points.
If you shake Michienzi’s hand, you’ll notice the nonagenarian has the firm grip of a man half his age. But you’ll also notice that his fingers feel cold to the touch because of the frostbite he suffered during the Battle of the Bulge.
After WWII, Michienzi planned to use his education under the G.I. Bill to become a school teacher and to coach student athletics. He ended up taking a commission and heading to Korea and then to Vietnam, he said, and he has no regrets.
“I’m happy with the way I spent my life,” he said. “Would I do it all over again? Probably so.”
The 91-year-old served in combat in the U.S. Army in three wars and retired in 1972 as a lieutenant colonel. He lives with his wife at Carolina Meadows in Chapel Hill.
World War II: Paratrooper and rifle platoon leader from 1943 to 1946. Fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Korean War: Commanded troops from 1952 to 1953.
Vietnam War: Regimental infantry adviser to Vietnamese in 1961 before the U.S. committed troops. Battalion commander from 1967 to 1968.
Awards: Distinguished Service Cross, five Silver Star Medals, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, five Bronze Star Medals, six Purple Hearts and five Air Medals.