Soldiers have a lot in common
For three local soldiers, war is a vivid memory, a constant reminder and a future experience.
Saturday is Armed Forces Day – a decades-old holiday hardly marked by parades or picnics. On Aug. 31, 1949, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson announced the creation of an Armed Forces Day to replace separate Army, Navy and Air Force Days. Armed Forces Day is celebrated annually on the third Saturday of May.
The three soldiers agree on one thing: They may be bedecked with ribbons and medals, but the real heroes are the soldier’s who never make it home.
Leon Birmingham, 86, of Minden, Ron Garside, 55, and Joe Rose, 18, both of the Gardnerville Ranchos, have many things in common, although they live generations apart and have never met each other.
Small-town, young men in the U.S. Army, war is a personal reality for each of them.
Birmingham fought in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, meant to be Hitler’s last stand that was the largest land battle of WWII. Of the American soldiers, there were 81,000 casualties, 23,554 captured, and 19,000 killed. Germany’s losses included 100,000 men who were either killed, wounded, or captured.
Garside is a decorated Vietnam veteran, who after being drafted the first time in 1967, went back to fight after his Ranger unit was wiped out, and was wounded at least five times, in combat “340 days out of 365 days.” That war, from 1961-1970, ended with nearly 60,000 dead and 2,504 Missing in Action.
Rose leaves at the end of this summer to the terror in Iraq, where as of today, 775 Americans have been killed.
They all joined the military for the same reason: To serve their country.
“Ninety-nine percent of us were just American boys who got a raw deal,” Garside said.
Birmingham had to convince a wife, four children, and his employer to let him fight the Germans.
“It was different then,” he said. “We knew who our enemy was and civilians never (got involved). But in Iraq and in Vietnam, they don’t know.
“Our wars are so much different. I feel so sorry for the soldiers. There is a greater threat. While combat is all the same, it is what’s around -the newfangled bombs they can detonate from far away…”
For Birmingham, the memories of 60 years ago are as vivid as if it were yesterday. He remembers his strapping company commander, who left the boys going off to war with this advice: The rifle will save your life, but only God will save your soul.
On Birmingham’s first patrol, three of his “new-found” friends were wiped out by German gunfire.
“They opened up and cut them down,” he recalls with tears in his eyes.
Stepping on a twig can bring him back to France where troops were in constant worry for booby traps. And he remembers entertainer Bob Hope and the USO shows.
“Not only did it make you forget,” he said, “but for awhile, you were normal.”
His advice to Rose is simple: Learn how to shoot and learn how to pray.
And Birmingham remembers the welcome home after the war ended on V-Day in 1946. Greeted by his wife, whom he was married to for 59 years, he said praying is what helped him survive.
“Don’t make me out to be a hero,” Birmingham said. “The others, they were the heroes.”
Rose joined the Army in November last year and was married on New Year’s Eve to Brooke, daughter of Judge Michael Gibbons of Douglas District Court. The young couple resides in Ft. Lewis, Wash., while he awaits his deployment orders.
Other units have returned from the Middle East, but Rose is not sure what to expect.
“No one really talks about it,” he said.
He joined the Army for educational opportunities, but said his focus has changed.
“The war brought up a lot of patriotism and dedication to your country for me,” he said, “and maybe just the fact that you are doing something for your country. Maybe I realize a little more how great America is and start to think of all the things I took for granted.”
While he is not looking forward to his deployment, he said he is motivated.
“Overall, I am motivated to go but disappointed of the fact that I am leaving my wife,” he said. I think everybody is concerned about their safety, but I don’t think about it before my time is called.”
His mother, Nancy Fredrickson, who works for the Indian Hills General District, is worried, however.
“Honestly, I didn’t think I would ever be one of those mothers, whose son went off to war and now it looks like I will be,” she said.
“I am scared to death. I think it’s too soon. He just got out of boot camp. But he’s strong and smart and I think he’ll be just fine.”
For Garside, who walks with a cane due to injuries he sustained, war is a constant reminder.
“I am still a bit flinchy when I hear a car backfire,” he said. “After I got older all (the injuries) are coming back. I did pretty good when I was young, with bullet holes and shrapnel wounds all over.”
He advises soldiers today to “know the guys in your squad so you always have back-up.”
“One guy can’t do it all,” he said. “You’ve got to know the other guys you have to count on.”
Garside’s homecoming did not include parades. He said he had to remove his uniform at the airport because of hostile protesters nearby.
“Here, after we had served our country, they were calling us baby killers. They treated us like lepers,” he said. “If we were heroes, we were treated so bad. It was a psychological let down.”
Garside has a bevy of medals and ribbons for his service. He was just recently awarded his fifth purple heart, which he said was a welcome home for him, at last.
“I wonder myself why I made it,” he said. “I guess I was just lucky.
“People said we were crazy for going and crazy for staying. All of us suffer some (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). I still have nightmares.”
Still, Garside said, Americans need to rally for the troops.
“I am in total support of our President,” he said. “I just hope everybody continues to support the soldiers and our troops over there. They are all professional soldiers now who are trained and making the big bucks. And they are our life support.”
n Regina Purcell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (775) 782-5121, ext. 211.