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No veterans left to recall World War I

Apr 27, 2017 By Betty Starks Case

I'm the daughter of a World War I veteran. I remember childhood days with a father who'd fought in Belgium, France, and Luxembourg in the "Great War," a conflict America entered 100 years ago this month.

We found my father's letter from Luxembourg, shown here in its original print, in a fragile old newspaper stored in a shoebox after my father died. The letter, dated Nov. 25, 1918, was written shortly after the World War I armistice was signed.

Published in my future grandfather's newspaper, the type was handset by my future mother. Those type-setting tools grace our home today.

As children, my two sisters and I sat on the floor before our dad watching him wrap the long, olive-colored, woolen leggings around his uniform pants legs to participate in military parades. I remember watching with pride as my father marched to honor the times and the soldiers who didn't live to tell their stories.

My dad's metal helmet, which I'd seen in a rare peek into the old trunk of "treasures" in our childhood home, carried a deep mark where it had been grazed by a bullet. The helmet seemed a hallowed object to me later. It had kept this young soldier alive to become my father, to wrap a muscled arm around me each evening in childhood, and once as a middle-aged woman, to say, "Good night, my good little girl."

Today, my dad's World War I uniform, along with his cap and leggings, I'm happy to say, reside at the Riverton Museum. The helmet, for years at home in the old trunk, disappeared somewhere along the line, to me a lost remnant of history itself.

My father seems weary but happy in the Luxembourg letter, the war drawing to a close, a ship heading for home a reality. He held no rancor toward the Germans. All were caught in the same war.

My father never spoke of his military experience. Many veterans don't. They hope to leave that dark world behind, if possible. Yet their sense of patriotism never wanes. Today, many returning veterans suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome, a condition called "shell-shock" following World War I.

Unlike today's children, informed by television and movies, I'd never been told of the darkness of war, nor had it made real to me.

So in childish ignorance, I once asked, "Daddy, did you kill anyone when you were in the war?"

A long, uncomfortable silence followed. Finally, my father, who tried to respond in truth to his children's serious questions, turned his gaze to the floor and murmured, "Sometimes it's kill or be killed." More silence.

Then I remembered the bullet gouge on his metal helmet in the old trunk.

I never questioned my father about the war again.

But I treasure his letter from Luxembourg beyond expression. On this anniversary year, I hope that sharing my father's letter lends reality to a story of early America's history. Like so many soldiers, then and yet today, he'd offered his life for others, their freedom sufficient reward.

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2017-10-19