A mountain boy, he grew up in a hillside community where all he had to look forward to being was a coal truck driver. He spent his spare time hunting quail along a rocky creek bank with a single-barreled shotgun that fell apart every time it was fired. When he turned 17, he lied about his age and joined the Army, like his brothers had done in WW II.
When he arrived at Fort Knox, Kentucky, they said his teeth were bad, and they pulled them all in two days. A month later he was selected to attend OCS (Officer Training School) but the Korean War broke out and he was told he was going to be an infantryman and was going fight the communists.
He wrote his mom letters almost every day; telling her about the war and about how he wished he were home. He was sort of the platoon sharpshooter/squad leader, and when he got shot in the wrist, they gave him a Purple Heart. He stayed in the fight with a bandage on his arm and kept eating frozen C-rations without any teeth.
One day during a hard push, he was on the deck of a tank firing the turret mounted machine gun when a bullet hit him in his left thigh. He fell backward, his captain caught him, and another bullet entered his chest, exited under his arm, and passed through the captain’s forearm. For this mountain boy the war was over.
He spent three years in an Army hospital, and finally got some false teeth, but they told him he might never walk again. That was unacceptable. So, he worked hard and learned to walk with one leg three inches shorter than the other. He also met a young lady, and when he walked out of the ward at Fort Pickett, Virginia, they got married.
Dedication and the GI Bill gave him an education. A strong work ethic put him in the public-school system where he became a guidance counselor. There, he advised many young men from his hometown on the importance of having the right attitude, working hard, and about how being the first one on the bus and ready to ride meant a hell of a lot is this world.
12 years later he would begin teaching those same lessons to his son. He also taught him to shoot, hunt, and about the importance of serving your country. His son got his own set of combat boots and passed similar lessons on to that Korean veteran’s grandson.
How do I know this story? That mountain boy was my father. He often said he wasn’t anything special, “There were a lot of young boys just like me.” He’s was right; he was just one of many with a similar story. But he was damn sure wrong about not being special.
Our combat veterans are one of the most special things this country has. And, just like me, there are many sons and daughters lucky enough to have had one as a father. Someone to teach them right and wrong, someone to demonstrate what hard work can achieve. And, someone to be their hunting mentor and give them the gift of the outdoors.
Payback is what’s needed, and there are many ways to make a payment on a debt that can never be fully settled. One check you can write does not require a pen or credit card; this fall, take a veteran hunting. If they can’t physically go hunting, take them some venison. If they don’t like venison, take them out to dinner. And, if you’re just too damn worthless, lazy, or no good to do any of those things, at least tell a veteran, “Thank you.”
While you’re sitting on a deer stand this fall, holding your rifle in your hands, remember all the Americans who have–with a rifle in their hands–offered their lives so that you didn’t have to.