By Tom Philpott: CNJ columnist
A small group of U.S. war veterans, the age difference among them as wide as 70 years, gathered this month at American Legion Post 177 in Fairfax, Va., for a special event at the annual Veterans Day Community Fair.
They had agreed to participate in a “living history,” co-hosted by VFW Post 8469, and organized by its commander, Floyd Houston, a man committed to ensuring local war heroes, old and young, don’t fade away.
For two hours they told war stories and stood by to answer questions that never came from local Boy Scouts seeking to earn merit badges for their time there. The public too was welcomed but didn’t show.
What they missed was more than the usual compelling personal accounts of war. They missed how deeply some veterans of past wars are disturbed by burdens being carried by the current generation of volunteers.
Avon Blevins, a retired Navy chief, began his talk by pulling a few mementoes from a paper bag. He was a teenage radioman aboard USS O’Brien when that destroyer escorted 50 landing craft, with 200 infantrymen apiece, toward Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
“We took them in on the first wave. We got them there on target and on time. … Patrolled up and down the beach all day and fired when they asked us to fire,” Blevins said.
O’Brien’s guns took out enemy pillboxes and a machine gun nest. It was relieved that evening by its sister ship, USS Meredith. When O’Brien returned at dawn, its crew could see the Meredith on fire and sinking from an explosion later confirmed to have been caused by a German mine.
Three weeks later, an eight-inch German shell from a shore battery would rip into O’Brien below its bridge, causing 32 casualties, Blevins said.
After repairs, the ship sailed to the Pacific. Blevins was still aboard when Japanese Kamikaze aircraft struck, twice.
“Almost blew the ship in two. We had a lot of casualties,” Blevins said. “We had part of the pilot too. I never will forget he had three or four uniforms on. I had one of his shoes until an officer took it away from me.”
By the time retired Army Col. George Juskalian, 95, arrived at Legion Post 177 in his wheel chair, the Boy Scouts had moved on. But sharing his experiences through three wars, including capture by the Germans in Tunisia, wasn’t his priority this afternoon.
“It starts with my anger at our present military policies,” he said. “We have military personnel redeploying to theaters of war five and six times and we’re not doing anything about it.
“We expand the Army by about 20,000, which is a drop in the bucket. But nobody is mentioning the draft. Nobody. Most of the country doesn’t even know we’re in a war. After eight, nine years of fighting, when in the hell are we going to level with them? How are we going to continue this all-volunteer business, especially for the Army and Marines taking the losses?”
Yes, he said, because of a poor economy the military is meeting recruit requirements. But before civilian jobs grew scarce, the services were lowering standards, Juskalian said. “Who’s kidding who?”
“I don’t hear anybody at the White House, anybody in the Pentagon, any of these generals we have, anyone in the Congress using the word ‘draft.’ It’s become a dirty word. We can’t rely on volunteer effort forever.
“If it’s a war worth fighting for,” he said, “the whole country has got to fight for it.”