For Wes on Veterans Day
This is part of what I wrote in his obituary: “He was born August 29, 1920 in Forest Park, Illinois. He volunteered and enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1939, serving on submarines, destroyers, and battleships. A qualified submariner, gun captain, soundman and radar operator, Wes served as gunner on five submarine combat missions during World War II, sinking numerous enemy vessels while he and his crewmates narrowly escaped death on a number of occasions. Wes was awarded the Navy Commendation, Asiatic Pacific Service, American Area, Philippine Liberation, American Defense with an 'A,' World War II Victory, Korean Service, United Nations Service, China Service, Navy Occupation (European) Medals and various other honors and awards. He retired after 20 years of decorated Naval Service at the rank of Chief Gunner's Mate.”
All of that would have been important to him, but five years later, I add this:
Wes was proud of the medals I wrote about. He had wanted them for years, and getting them from the Navy was a project that took months. Angela, have you sent the letters about my medals?
Naval service was, for him, about doing the right thing according to a simple code of honor that had to do with sacrifice for his fellow seamen as well as for his country. He told the story of risking his life to disarm a live and malfunctioning gun, an act for which I believe he won the Navy Commendation medal. He didn’t see it as particularly courageous. It was the right thing, it was who he was. He was humble and brave and he was also one of the kindest men I have ever known.
During the last month of his life we traveled to Mobile, Alabama to attend a reunion of some of the men for whom he would have given his life, the veterans of the USS Texas battleship, and then almost immediately afterward he began the intermittent hospital stays that consumed his last weeks. The time I spent with him then was indescribably sweet.
I sat with him in the hospital one weekend after I had just begun the MFA program I will (finally) complete next Spring, and I was working on something for a workshop. I’m fine, don’t worry about me, he would say when I would stop writing in my notebook. Just keep writing. It’s important.
On November 8, 2004, Wes went home from the hospital via ambulance. I slept on the floor beside the hospital bed in his living room three nights, grateful for every breath. Thursday, November 11, Veterans Day, he died.
Happy Veterans Day, Wes. May your soul be free.