As America prepares to celebrate its birthday as an independent nation, three area veterans shared their thoughts with us on coming together regardless of political or social allegiance to observe the sacrifices made in preserving that independence for 240 years.
Al Pridemore will take office July 10 as the new commander of VFW Post 6941 in Wellington. He served in the Marine Corps from 1987-1991, including overseas for the duration of Operation Desert Storm.
He comes from a lineage of VFW leadership with one grandfather commanding a VFW post in Cleveland and another serving in the same capacity in West Virginia.
“I feel like every kid in America should personally experience the other world outside of this country,” he said. “Maybe not the extent of going to war, just to see how grateful they should be for the life they have in America. A lot of people don’t appreciate the world that we live in now.”
Pridemore said he is glad that since Vietnam, Americans have become better at supporting troops even if they disagree with the politics behind a certain war or conflict.
“I have a huge place in my heart for Vietnam veterans,” he said. “They did not receive the appreciation or understanding that those before and after them got. Even the kids today going overseas have it worse than those of us who served in the first Gulf War. My hat goes off to them. It’s something that sits very strong in my mind.”
“I have seen Vietnam vets who are afraid to be in the mix with other vets at ceremonies because they still feel the stigmas that were laid upon them. They were just following orders. No one gets to choose their assignments.”
Tom Hauck of American Legion Post 118 in Amherst was stationed in Panama as an Army corporal from 1954-1956.
“I volunteered for the draft when I was 19 years old because I wanted to be part of everything,” said Hauck. “When World War II was over I was only 11 years old. Entire neighborhoods emptied and ran into the streets to celebrate. I joined up toward the end of the Korean Conflict but was never called over there.”
He said that for troops who are called to duty in wartime, much work still needs to be done in properly taking care of them when they return home.
“These are the guys who gave their bones and bodies for the country. The blame should be put on the politicians who are allotting this money,” he said. “They’re spending it on other things. A lot of veterans have other means besides the V.A. to obtain the medical care they need. Vets who don’t have anything can’t be forgotten about.”
Stephen Johnson served as a sergeant in the Army from 1975-1977 and as master of ceremonies at Oberlin’s Memorial Day celebration this year.
“I remember going to Europe in my service days and getting to see Nuremberg and Rotenberg,” said Johnson. “We spent a lot of time in tents. We lived in them for the better part of six weeks. The Belgian Army took us up to see the Iron Curtain, which still existed at that time. I was in the 101st Airborne. We were taken to see where the Great Stand and the Battle of the Bulge took place.”
He said more work needs to be done to find and preserve pictures and news footage of our military’s past. He referenced a film reel recovered in 2014 that showed new pictures of the Battle of the Bulge.
“It’s really amazing what keeps popping up. A grandfather or great-grandfather owns this stuff or it can be hidden in archives,” he said. “It always reminds me of the scene in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ where everyone is wondering where the Ark of the Covenant is and they cut to the scene of it being placed in a huge warehouse. It’s kind of scary how something so significant can fall through the cracks.”
Johnson just returned from a two-week tour of Europe that included stops at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, the site of Operation Market Garden in Holland, Belgium’s Battle of the Bulge site, and a liberated German concentration camp.
“It was all such a humbling experience,” he said. “Going there draws into sharp focus what democracy really means.”
On turmoil that arises in America regarding reasons behind overseas conflicts, Johnson feels that those arguments ultimately serve the good of the country.
“We’re going to have our differences. Sometimes they’re minor. Sometimes they seem like a giant gulf between us. Our history is that over time those rifts get healed and we go on and become better from it.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.
Photos courtesy of Stephen Johnson The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial serves as the final resting place for 9,386 American troops killed in Operation Overlord, better known as D-Day, on June 6, 1944.