As a journalist, I’ve covered many events honoring veterans — Memorial Day, parades, funerals, dedications, anniversaries and Veterans Day, of course. Usually, they are somber affairs with “Taps” and flyovers and the riderless horse, and it wasn’t unusual for me to find myself furiously swiping away at the moisture in my eyes before it started down my cheeks.
The event I attended last week in Newport was a bit different. Somber, of course, but also a cause for celebration — the dedication of Highway 20 as the Oregon Medal of Honor Highway.
The events are important in their own right, but it’s the people who make them so memorable. When I talk with a veteran, I am always proud to note that my Dad earned two Purple Hearts in Korea. He almost never talked about the war, but once, as we sat in a restaurant during one of my visits home, he began telling of the time he was wounded on Heartbreak Ridge. One of the soldiers carrying him to the MASH unit was killed on the way. Once there, a priest offered Last Rites and asked my Dad if there was anything he could do for him. My dad told him to tell his mother he loved her. Thankfully, he lived to do that himself. From those wounds he bore what we kids called his second belly button and for years my mother picked shrapnel from his legs and back. She learned, too, that if rice was on the supper menu, she needed to make a separate dish for him. After Korea, he hated rice, he hated the cold and he never boarded another plane.
My brother served in Vietnam, returning home with two medals, and stories he didn’t talk much about in front of me or, I would later learn, even his wife. Some veterans return from combat and move on, putting the hell behind them as best as possible. My brother was not one of them. I believe those years in Vietnam caused his death at 64 as surely as if he’d died at the hands of the Viet Cong on that night he earned an Achievement Medal and a Navy Commendation Medal, both affixed with the bronze V for combat valor.
A few days ago, as I readied to cover the dedication of the Oregon Medal of Honor Highway, I met another veteran whose story will stay with me. At 97, Robert Maxwell is the oldest living recipient of the Medal of Honor. You might have read accounts in the news about how Maxwell, just 23 at the time and stationed in France as a wireman, heard a grenade land nearby. Unable to see it in the dark, he threw himself on it in an attempt to smother the explosion. The grenade went off, taking a good portion of his right foot with it. Maxwell survived his injuries, came home, took advantage of the GI Bill and eventually became a community college auto mechanics instructor. What you might not have heard was that Maxwell, who was raised in the Quaker faith, and could have chosen to be a conscientious objector, but did not, was shunned from his religion for his decision to fight.
And yet, Maxwell kept his faith. He and his wife Bea established the Bob and Bea Medal of Honor Scholarship program at Boise Bible College, providing scholarships to more than 10 students entering the ministry.
When I met Bob, he shared his memories of that night when he earned recognition as the “bravest of brave,” though he didn’t make too much of it. What he really wanted to talk about was the importance of freedom and how different our world would be if we had not stopped Hitler, had not stopped Japan. How different our world will be if we don’t continue to fight for freedom for everyone.
In the days to come, I’ll remember Robert Maxwell and his selfless courage, just as I’ll remember so many other veterans whose stories both inspired and humbled me.
I’ll remember, too, that all soldiers do not get to come home, and many of those who do face a future perpetually darkened by the past.
That’s the price of freedom, paid for by a select, courageous few, and owed our debt of gratitude for their sacrifice.
Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.