My Great Privilege — Meeting a World War II Veteran
In few more years, they’ll be gone.
Every one of them.
The millions who marched on foot across a continent and who sailed the high seas some 70 years ago are slowly but surely leaving us. They pass away at the rate of thousands per year, which will gradually come to a few hundred, and then to a trickle. In another decade or so, they will be no more.
They are what has been called “the Greatest Generation.”
When times were the toughest, they endured it. When duty called and the bell of national service rang, they answered it. When our way of life and liberty was at stake, they defended it. And when it was all over and some came home, they honored and remembered those who didn’t.
They are our heroes.
Indeed, most aren’t young anymore. Most have seen and suffered far more than any human should endure. They don’t play on sports fields. They aren’t movie stars. They aren’t rich or famous. But they are far more special than any of those superficial icons with fleeting illusions of accomplishment. They are the survivors and the victors of the last century’s most trying test. They are the champions. The champions of the world.
Yesterday, I had the great honor and privilege of meeting a man named Richard Decowski. He’s 85-years-old and lives in Chicago. I noticed Mr. Decowski because he was sitting alone. Dining by himself. He was wearing a hat that was emblazoned with the proud letters: “WORLD WAR II — VETERAN.”
Saluting this man seems not to be enough. Shaking this man’s hand can’t possibly repay the debt of gratitude we all owe to him and his colleagues, who served both then and now. Thanking him with words cannot possibly be enough to convey the sense of admiration he and his brethren deserve.
Mr. Decowski seemed genuinely surprised that someone, a stranger, would approach him from across the room to make such a greeting. It was as though, this does not happen often in this man’s life. But it should happen, much more often. It should happen each and every day when he wears his hat with such great pride and dignity. He should be shaking a thousand hands and hearing a parade of thank yous.
Of course, veterans like Mr. Decowski have their rightful moments of distinction when they are so deservedly singled out for their sacrifices — on Memorial Day, on Veterans Day, and at other times. But our proud veterans should not merely be recognized once or twice a year. In fact, they should be greeted and thanked as part of their daily lives, and ours. It’s the least we should do.
Our veterans should also be listened to. I had the pleasure of being able to speak to Mr. Decowski for a few minutes. What a wonderful opportunity that was. Imagine, the chance to speak to a man who volunteered to leave his home, go to the other side of the world, and fight evil. He was a man who had a front-row in the grand theatre of world history. And I got a chance to speak to him.
Yet oddly enough, I got the strange feeling he does not get asked about the war very much. Perhaps that’s why he was so eager and willing to reminisce at that rare moment. Mr. Decowski revealed that he landed on Sicily in 1944 when he was a newly enlisted private in the U.S. Army. He was only 18-years-old at the time. Imagine his world and what visions he saw as a young boy, landing on enemy territory and running onto hostile land as bullets and bombs posed an imminent danger and even death.
Later, Mr. Decowski went on to fight in Italy and was present when that axis nation surrendered to the allies. Later, he marched up to Marsailles, France where he and his outfit merged with the Army of General George S. Patton. They then moved on to France. A year later, the war was over. Many thousands died. But Mr. Decowski survived and lived to tell those later who would listen what it was like to not only witness history but to make it.
Now, 67 years later, he’s living in his native Chicago. He lives alone. I did not ask about a wife or his family, though I presume they were once a part of his life. But Mr. Decowski did show me a photograph of his brother. It was tucked away inside his wallet. He carefully opened the leather cache and took out a wrinkled old photo taken many decades ago. It was a photo that had been taken out and shown many times, perhaps even to strangers on occasion. It was a photo shown with great pride. It showed the smiling faces of two men. Both were in uniform. One of those was Mr. Decowski. The other was of his brother.
I did not ask Mr. Decowski why he took the time to share this photograph with me at that instant. It would have seemed disrespectful. I did not want to ask a question that perhaps had a sad answer. The fact was, he felt the need to show that photo to someone, and I had the lucky set of eyes to gaze upon it. I hope I gave him and the photo of his brother the dignity they both deserved.
Alas, they will all be gone from us in a few more years. Think about that. Remember that.
Please, let us enjoy their company while we still can. Allow us just a few precious moments of their time and ours to reflect and remember. Moreover, give us the right words to say what needs to be said. To thank them. To thank them all. To let them know how much they are appreciated.
I was so very fortunate to meet Mr. Decowski. Yesterday was my lucky day.