By Karen Dill • Guest Columnist
“Mom,” my daughter Anna began on her phone call from Washington, D.C., “wasn’t Grandpa a World War II veteran?”
It seems there are scholarship monies for medical students who are direct descendants of veterans of WWII. Anna has just begun her first year of medical school at George Washington University and has found a donor — a Jewish physician who taught at the medical school and was indebted to the men and women who fought in Europe during World War II.
“Yes,” I slowly answer, “indeed he was.”
Anna needs documentation of his military service and I agree to look through the boxes of papers taken from my mother’s house after her death last year. I’m not feeling very hopeful, as I can’t remember seeing anything other than his old World War II uniform and the Purple Heart medal he earned. I’m sure the scholarship committee needs his discharge papers, at the very least.
My father died in 1980, and although he lived a full life in his beloved mountain home, his service to his country was probably the most defining period. He spoke often of his service, his days in the army and the travel he experienced, but most of his contribution was left unspoken. It was evidenced in the day-to-day struggles of his existence.
This much I knew: he was a young soldier in the army infantry. He was proud to serve his country in the European theater. He was shot in the back in a skirmish with German soldiers. He would spend a year in a military hospital in France. He would come home to Haywood County and try to work. He would not be able to hold a job for any period of time.
He would suffer from back and leg pain for his entire life. He would walk with a limp on good days and bent over double on bad days. He would awake with night terrors and would fly into a fit of rage for no reason. He would walk the floor at night with migraine headaches, holding his head and crying in pain.
He was a proud man. He loved his country and did not want money for his service. He would not file for disability although he was clearly disabled. It was not about the money, he said. He did not want money for his injuries or for serving his great country. Serving his country was a privilege, he said proudly.
He finally agreed to file for disability when I applied for a college scholarship for children of disabled veterans. I got the full, four-year scholarship and he would remind me (often!) that his blood had paid my tuition. This gave him reason to be proud, and I tried hard to live up to his expectations.
Until the day that he died, he would stand proudly, though bent with pain, his rough hand to heart over his dirty, tattered shirt when the flag was displayed or during the Canton Labor Day parade. Tears would course down his face, his eyes filled with rapture. This is the greatest country on earth, he’d say — this common man — a veteran from the greatest generation.
What else did I know? I would run my small child’s fingers down his scarred back, finding the fragments of shrapnel under his skin. I imagined the shrapnel had the same feel as the pea under the mattress of the princess. I did not understand the pain from those tiny pieces of metal. I was frightened by his screams of terror at night.
Once when I awoke in the wee hours of the morning, I found him sitting at the kitchen table, a cigarette and black coffee in hand, dark circles under his eyes, his head bent. It had been a bad night, a bad dream.
“I was fightin’ them krauts, I reckon,” he grinned sheepishly. “They got me in the back, you know.”
“I know, Daddy, you told me.”
I’d shake my head wearily and go back to bed. No one knew about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder back then. Now as I look in vain for his military papers — any tangible proof of his service I wish I could go back to that night. I’d ask him about the battle that scarred him for life. I’d ask him how old he’d been and where he’d been shot. I’d ask about his dreams and his fears. I’d ask him what makes him happy now. I’d reach out and touch his hand.
Finally in the box of papers, I find his death certificate. From that, I retrieve a Social Security number, his birth date, death date. He was born in Haywood County and he died there. This is a start, I think, of the search for more records.
I enter the information on the World War II Veteran’s Web site. I am told via email a few days later that most of the army military records were destroyed in a 1973 fire. I am sent more papers to complete and I quickly comply. I call state and local offices in an effort to find any paper work concerning his military service. Then I hit pay dirt right in my own backyard.
The Haywood County Register of Deeds found his separation papers that were filed when he returned home in October of 1945. Sherri Rogers (the register of deeds and no relation that I know) mailed them to me immediately. I opened the envelope with shaking hands and scanned the military form. The questions that I never thought to ask were answered on this standard issue form. I began to cry, soft muted sobs of sorrow and regret. Why did it take so long to know this man?
And this I now know: Woodrow Wilson Rogers (born 6/28/1918; died 2/3/1980) received an Honorable Discharge from the United States Army. He was in the 2nd Battalion, Headquarters Detachment, Field Lineman 641. He was given a Combat Infantryman’s Badge on July 23, 1944. He fought in Normandy and Northern France. He was awarded a Good Conduct Medal, EAME Theater Medal, American Defense Service Medal and a Purple Heart. He was wounded on Sept. 3, 1944, in the European African Middle Eastern Theater and spent a year in hospitals in France and Germany. He returned home to Haywood County on Oct. 22, 1945. His eyes were blue, his hair brown. He was 5’7” and weighed 125 pounds when he returned. He was given a total out pay of $300.
Those are the facts, but they are not the story. The story is about a common mountain man (a Laborer 590 is his civilian occupation and number on the discharge papers) who lived a common life and who performed uncommon acts of courage for his country. He would disagree with that assessment. The injuries, the horrendous pain that he endured were only what he thought any man should have done for his country. He had no regrets about that.
My regrets are many. The unasked questions, the lack of understanding, the cavalier nature of youth — I would do differently now. I have finally asked the questions and from the grave, I believe that I am given some answers. Will Anna get the scholarship? I hope so, but this search eventually was not about the money — just as my father’s noble service to his country was not about the money.
It is about finally finding the truth and finally appreciating the facts. It is about gifts: a gift from the grave to a daughter and granddaughter and a gift from a man to his country. It is a gift of patriotism and pride that surpasses the pain and suffering of military service. It is a gift of redemption for unasked questions.