A Memorial Day thank-you to a generation that’s smaller but still great

May 25 2013
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Col. Tom Brewer, left, thanks 92-year-old William Gallagher, an Army veteran of World War II, for his service at a pre-Memorial Day celebration at Omaha’s New Cassel Retirement Center, 900 N. 90th St.

By Michael Kelly WORLD-HERALD COLUMNIST/The Omaha World-Herald

Sixteen million Americans served.

Just over a million remain alive.

Those are the numbers for veterans of World War II, and more than 220,000 are expected to die this year from a bullet that can’t be dodged: old age.

At a pre-Memorial Day ceremony in Omaha, 24 veterans of that war sat attentively rather than stood at attention, as they once would have. So did eight other military veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Wars and other eras.

“On this stage,” said emcee Cynthia Petrich, 47, an Army veteran of Operation Desert Storm, “are the heroes of our lifetime.

In their cases, very long lifetimes.

Among them was Elroy Lieb, almost 90, the recipient of three Purple Hearts. In the Philippines, he was wounded on separate occasions in the head, the hand and the chest.

His commanding officer told him that because the enemy had tried three times to kill him and couldn’t, he should go home to Nebraska. He did so, and in a candlelit country church, promptly married Norma Jean, now his wife of nearly 68 years.

The Liebs lived most of their adult lives in O’Neill, Neb., where they raised five children, two of whom served in Vietnam. Some families measure military service in generations.

The ceremony last week for aging veterans was held at the New Cassel Retirement Center, 900 N. 90th St., in an auditorium dressed in red, white and blue. Millard American Legion Post 374 solemnly posted the nation’s colors.

A modern-day warrior, Col. Tom Brewer of the Nebraska National Guard, was touched by the sight of so many white swatches of hair and the memory of the young GIs and other enlistees that these men and women once were. He has given 35 speeches in the past 16 months and said he hadn’t seen so many veterans in their 90s in one place.

“It’s rare to see a World War II veteran,” he told the audience of about 200, “and, sadly, even Korean War vets are getting rarer and rarer.”

If you wanted to see veterans of wars from six and seven decades ago, this was a good place to find them. Retirement centers, assisted-living centers and nursing homes are now the province of many old soldiers — as well as aging airmen, sailors and Marines.

Brewer, 54, severely wounded twice in Afghanistan, paid tribute to those who went before him, dubbed the Greatest Generation.

“You just realize what a hard, tough generation this was,” he said, turning to the men and women being honored. “They not only fought and won the Second World War, but they took an economy and country that had been struggling and turned it into an economic juggernaut that helped the world recover from war.”

Brewer, an Oglala Sioux tribal member who speaks some Russian and Dari (a variety of Persian spoken in Afghanistan), has served in the military for 35 years. He said he wished there were time to sit with all the old veterans and hear their stories.

In the past year or so, while recovering from wounds, he finally has spoken at length with his own father, a veteran of World War II and Korea.

“We’ve had time to sit and talk,” he said. “What a treasure of information I’ve learned.”

His dad explained that he and comrades learned about the tactics of the Axis enemies, Germany and Japan. Today those nations are friendly to the United States.

“It’s the nature of the world,” Brewer said. “It’s how it has changed.”

As a former team member and coach of the All-Army shooting team, Brewer recently traveled to Germany for a marksmanship competition.

Returning home, he brought along two friends who had retired from the German military. Col. Brewer enjoyed driving them through the Sand Hills of Nebraska, to Fort Robinson State Park and to the Black Hills of South Dakota.

It seemed so natural. But on the world stage, peace and friendship are often elusive.

Brewer hopes to return to Afghanistan, he said, because “I hated the way I left — in a Medevac helicopter.”

GIs and others returning from WWII and Korea mostly slipped quietly into civilian life, not pausing for parades or other recognition. Many Vietnam veterans, the colonel noted, had it worse — criticism and catcalls.

Recent American returnees, he said, generally have received warm welcomes home.

“You can argue about the mission,” Brewer said. “But how the American people treat those soldiers once they come home is so critical in how they deal with what they saw and what they did.”

Assisted by Petrich, president of the New Cassel Foundation, Brewer approached all 32 of the military veterans on stage and shook their hands. They each received a commemorative coin, called a “challenge coin.”

And then taps was played.

Relatives and others mingled with the honorees, enjoying cookies and refreshments. People saw old photos of the veterans. A few stories were told from long ago.

Elroy Lieb was mostly quiet, but Norma Jean recalled afterward that their first date was on a historic date — Dec. 7, 1941, the day that lives in infamy because of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. (The couple saw a movie that Sunday, “A Yank in the R.A.F.,” starring Tyrone Power and Betty Grable.)

The attack drew America into the war, and Elroy himself would fight in the South Pacific. He survived malaria and getting wounded three times.

He was among about 680,000 Americans wounded in WWII. About 416,000 died, including 291,000 battle deaths.

As Memorial Day weekend arrives, Americans prepare to honor the fallen from all wars — and to salute the old soldiers still with us who survived war and so much more.

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