The call of duty: Local veterans talk about what it really means to serve

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Elman Gibbs doesn't know what happened in Morley, Mo., between 1943 and 1945. He was drafted into the Army in 1942 and spent that time in North Africa and France as a surgery technician holding limbs while an orthopedic surgeon worked on wounded soldiers.

He was released, got a job with the highway department and lived with his wife in Morley. He now lives in the Missouri Veterans Home in Cape Girardeau.

Myriam Lockett of Chaffee, Mo., said she joined the Marine Corps in 1996 because "I just wanted to do something good and I wanted to make a difference."

Lockett got out of the Marines in 2003 and is now a sergeant with the Chaffee Police Department.

Vernon Auer was selling office and school supplies when he decided on a career change. He signed up for the U.S. Air Force and was sworn in December 1943.

His reason was simple: "We were at war," he said.

Auer spent the war years flying supplies to Allied troops in Burma and China. He won two distinguished flying crosses, four air medals, four battle stars and an American Defense Medal. He lives in the veterans home and said he'll tag along if they do anything for Veterans Day today.

Nov. 11 was first declared as Armistice Day in 1918, to commemorate the implementation of an armistice between the Allies and Germany at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. That cease-fire signaled the end of fighting in World War I.

In 1938, Congress passed legislation making Armistice Day a federal holiday. Towns and cities celebrated the veterans of the Great War with parades. After World War II and the Korean War produced millions more veterans, President Dwight Eisenhower signed legislation to officially change the holiday to Veterans Day in 1954.

Lawrence Breeze , a retired Southeast Missouri State University history professor and an anti-tank gunner in World War II, said he doesn't really remember a big to-do for the World War II veterans.

"They still had something, and it was on November 11," he said. "But most of those guys came home and went back to business. I just wanted to forget it."

Breeze tried to join the Army Air Corps in early 1942 but was turned down because of a heart problem. He was drafted into the Army later that year and after a brief detour into the Army Specialized Training Program, he ended up fighting in the 311th Infantry Regiment of the 78th Infantry Division.

Breeze was part of the Battle of the Bulge on the Belgian and German border. His unit inadvertently surprised German troops in the Hurtgen Forest, just north of the main fighting.

"They didn't expect to be attacked," he said. "By doing that, one whole division and part of another that were to be in the big push" were diverted by his unit and did not get to reinforce the German forces.

"He would never show you these himself," Breeze's wife Alice said as she laid out shadow boxes of his medals, "but I will."

She pointed out the Combat Infantry Badge in the center of one shadow box and explained you earn that "the hard way."

"Oh yes," Larry Breeze said, shaking his head, "that's the one I'm proud of."

The combat medal is accompanied by a Victory Medal, Occupation Medal for Germany, a Good Conduct Medal, a North American Theater medal, a European Theater Ribbon with three bronze battle stars, and a Bronze Star awarded twice.

Some veterans said that although they have served in the military, they view a service member who was in war -- especially one of the world wars -- as more of a veteran.

"I think the veterans are the ones who were in war or are in Iraq now," said Lockett, the former Marine from Chaffee.

Color Guards from Jackson area military organizations marched their way from the Jackson City Park to the Brookside Veterans Memorial during Saturday's, September 17, 2005, POW-MIA Rememerance Walk sponsored by VFW Post 10495. (DON FRAZIER • dfrazier@semissourian.com)

"Yes, I am proud to be a veteran, but I have not been in a place where some of these military members have been," she said.

Cape Girardeau resident R.J. Gardiner echoed her sentiments.

"I'm proud of what I did," he said, but added "It's kind of hard to (feel like a veteran) when there's guys who've been over there for a year. When they have to hold a rifle for safety."

Gardiner served five years in the Marine Corps. He worked on jets in Kuwait during Operation Southern Watch -- the period between the Gulf War and the Iraq war monitoring the airspace over Iraq -- and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"I'm sorry they feel that way," Breeze said when he was told of their feelings. "I don't think their service and what they did should be taken lightly. They don't need to have anyone shoot at them -- they are veterans."

After the dedication of the new Vietnam War Memorial, attendees came forward to place roses at the base of the monument in honor of all veterans who served. (AARON EISENHAUER • aeisenhauer@semissourian.com)

Breeze's anti-tank unit had 10 men. Of the original 10 who went into the Hurtgen Forest together, Breeze was the only one who came back with no visible battle wounds.

"Having experienced that, I'm willing to say, 'You're veterans and I respect you,'" he said.

That respect wasn't always shown to veterans of some wars. The political conflicts surrounding the fighting in Vietnam caused many veterans to come back and keep silent.

"It was a changing, turbulent time," David Ludwig said. Ludwig served in the Navy from 1968 to 1972 and worked in tech control and operations in Vietnam.

When he returned from Vietnam, people in San Francisco threw vegetables at him, he said. Aside from his immediate family, only three people expressed gratitude or relief that he was safe.

Veterans of All Wars Memorial - Brookside Park - Jackson

"Three people," he said. "That's not many."

Today, though, ceremonies in Cape Girardeau and Jackson will highlight all veterans.

The American Legion is holding a ceremony at Capaha Park at 11 a.m. The Cape Girardeau Area Joint Veterans Council has sponsored a Veterans Re-Call to Glory Formation at 1:30 in Arena Park.

Jackson will host a parade that starts at 4 p.m. by the Jackson High School and will travel to the courthouse and loop around to end back at the high school. After the parade, a ceremony will be held in the New McKendree United Methodist Church with retired U.S. Marine Maj. Richard Decker speaking.

charris@semissourian.com

The Veterans Day weekend was enhanced with an expanded Avenue of Flags at Cape Girardeau County Park North. (FRED LYNCH • flynch@semissourian.com)

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