Is Engaging Older Veterans a Ministry? I think so – or at least it is for me. It started when I was rather young.
For decades, I’ve been taking an interest in Veterans’ stories, and I always show my respect while speaking with them. With the ending of Gulf War, I decided that I would not let any returning veteran feel ignored, worthless or hated. I determined to greet them and to give them what so many Viet Nam Vets never received – “A welcome home.”
Recently, I was about to leave a pharmacy where I repaired various computer equipment, and an older gent walked past the front counter heading for the customer seating area along the wall. He sported a ball cap – the sort that veterans wear. I strained to read the front of it. “WWII Veteran.”
No ball cap of any military style or vintage catches my eye like one for WWII Aye Aye.
My duties complete, and the lunch break upon me, I made my way over to him. Rather a small fellow, actually, and rather hunched, his peculiar left arm caught my eye..
Aware that I was staring in his direction, he returned my gaze with a questioning, open-eyed look so common among that generation. He watched my approach with a little trepidation. Squatting in front of him, I started with one of my canned, yet honest, greetings.
“I’m not old enough to have been there. Wasn’t even born, yet; But welcome home. I’m glad you made it back.”
About the time I started the last sentence, his bewildered look gave way to happiness. A big grin brightened his face as he took my offered hand and gave it a good shake. His grip was at least as strong as mine. Pretty good for a man of 97 years!
We spoke for a good while, as snapshot “thank yous” for veterans go. A lot can be learned about a man if the right questions are asked.. . . and, if he wants to share. Spend time with WWII and Korea vets and you’ll know what I mean.
His name was Tony. If I remember this correctly (and I knew I’d have trouble with it) his last name was D’Genova. He was with the US Army, during the Italy campaign….
Tony’s parents were both of Italian heritage. His father fought in WWI, the “Great War” – you know, the one that was supposed to end all wars. When he returned home, he met his future wife, also of Italian blood. She was from near Naples, and he, from Bari, on the other side of the Boot. A lightening-romance culminated in marriage and Tony was born a year later. The loved son of a happy immigrant couple.
Years later, Tony would report for duty with the US Army during WWII. Slated for action in the Mediterranean – and most famously, for Italy, he arrived in Naples in 1944. I asked him if he got to see his mother’s home town while in the area. No, he didn’t. There was too much happening, and he was pretty well occupied with “occupying” whatever part of Italy they were to storm. It was a beehive of preparation, organization and staging. Then it was all business.
During our conversation, I felt like I was talking to an old friend. I watched his eyes closely. The youth of a man can be found in his eyes.
I listened as well as I was able. We both have hearing issues, and that led to some laughter. Neither of us minded repeating ourselves, and we talked as loud as we pleased. I knew people were watching us – the middle-aged guy conversing with the tired, old and bent veteran who likely never rated more than a passing glance from anyone. Both of us just shrugged off the stares.
Giving these guys respect is one of my missions and pleasures. And Tony was a character.
In his words,
“I got pretty banged up over there. A mortar exploded behind me. I took seven pieces of steel.” He reached over with his right arm and pointed to a spot behind his left ear, near where the hearing aid was attached. “Still have a piece of it back here. They said it was best to leave it there. I never checked to see if it could come out later.”
After that, he got around to explaining about his oddly short left arm. It was the work of the A German machine which gun took him down. Hitting the left side of his chest, the bullet didn’t make it past his rubs. Burrowing, instead, into his arm pit and down his biceps, it did its worst, wrecking his humorous and elbow.
I knew there was a story in his elbow somewhere. It had the funny look and feel of a major war wound. Tony told me the doc did his best to set the arm. Healing was slow, and that took him out of the war.
Pretty banged-up, alright. Over the next two years, he had a few operations, but those surgeons were never able to get his elbow to work. In fact, the joint fused solidly and he could not bent it at all.
The final operation was performed as the preferred of two choices: leave it alone and have no control over swinging it around and breaking it often or, have a flesh elbow built. He chose the latter. After the removal of the fused blob of bone, a muscle-and-tendon flex joint was created. He ended up with about 25 degrees of motion in it.
Tony’s arm is an elastic anomaly like nothing I’ve seen before. That it works is phenomenal. “There’s not a day it doesn’t hurt,” he said. Yet smiling, “But I don’t care. I’m alive and lived a long time.” This was obviously a reference to those who died in the war. It was the first time I sensed sadness in his face.
I told him about my old Vet friend, Brandon Babbett, who passed in 2004. Brandon went ashore at Normandy, France, on 9 June, 1944. I shared with him how Brandon was shot in the neck by a German sniper, an 8mm bullet that stayed with him until the 1970s. I shared how Brandon healed quickly, was denied discharge and walked across Europe to Germany. Tony had a knowing look in his eyes. The young man in him was remembering his own walk, and the stories of the walks of other men. It was then that he knew I had conversed with Veterans before, and that I sought to share and understand.
Tony’s arm is seven inches shorter now, but I see a complete man – one that has lived through many kinds of battles in life. We talked about pain and recovery, and swapped stories. He was shocked to hear how my neck disc injury could result in so many symptoms. We tossed stories back and forth in quick little two or three sentence-abbreviated form. It was as if we were catching up after a long time apart. When it came time to go, I didn’t really want to leave. But I felt good that I did what I was supposed to do. I left him with a smile. He sat taller too.
Tony was a compassionate man, and easy to like. He was humble, happy and liked to talk. I felt like I made a friend. I learned that the employees of that store like him a lot as well as him being a regular customer.
Consistent. I think he’s been consistent all his life. Tony is one of the greats in the “Greatest Generation.” Most of the time I get to share the love and protection that is available to all of us through Jesus Christ. Even though they don’t all use the same words, most of these Veterans pretty much acknowledge that they are still here by the Grace of God. Some even preach to me!
Oh yes. For those that want to know. Tony D’Genova was a US Army infantry rifleman. A foot soldier. A Grunt. The son of a Dough Boy. One of those guys who takes ground from the enemy, holds it for a moment, and then moves on into the guts of the beast.
Do or die. But mostly do.
88th Infantry Division. Hooah.
This true story is shared at “Tell Me a True Story.”