A letter from A. Rudy Klopfer, director of the VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System, published in the Leavenworth Times last week invited “every one of your readers” to visit veterans in the Dwight D. Eisenhower VA Medical Center this week of Valentine's Day.
A letter from A. Rudy Klopfer, director of the VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System, published in the Leavenworth Times last week invited "every one of your readers" to visit veterans in the Dwight D. Eisenhower VA Medical Center this week of Valentine's Day.
Last figure for readers I saw was some 10,000 a day for paper readers – and that doesn't include thousands more online – so if all accept the VA hospital will be inundated with visitors.
The letter brought a flashback of sorts to my first Valentine's Day visit to the VA. That was way back in 1979, when the Army at the fort notified active duty personnel and civilians that a bus would take them to the VA hospital for a visit with vets on that uniquely American holiday.
So freshman tactics instructor Reichley boarded the bus and away we went. Lots of folks greeted us as we stepped off and were escorted into the hospital. We were welcomed and told what to do and where to go.
I wasn't sure just what the vets expected, so I wandered the hallways popping in and out of rooms to say hello. If there was already a visitor in a room I went to the next one so as not to get the patient too excited or worked up.
Toward the end of the visit I looked in the room of one vet and no one else was in it, so I went inside. A very big man with snowy white hair lay in the bed and he returned my greeting when I said hello.
We chatted a while and he sounded in good shape, so I asked when he was leaving. "My daughter is coming from Iowa tomorrow to take me home," he said. "She brings me here every five years or so for several days of treatment then comes to take me back." He said he was a farmer who had lived much of his life on a tractor.
He was in good spirits, and I asked if he'd mind me asking what he'd been in the hospital for. His answer stunned me.
"I was 18 years old and in a trench in France in 1918," he said, "and I didn't get my gas mask on in time when the Germans shelled us with mustard gas. I inhaled a small portion before I got the mask on, and something is still in my lungs, so my daughter brings me here every five years to get it pumped."
This was 1979, meaning this hardy Iowa farmer, who had breathed the purest of air for 61 years since the gas attack, still had to come get his lungs purged every few years. Good grief.
In ROTC we'd learned a bit about gas warfare in WW I, and at summer camp we'd gone into a so-called "gas chamber" to be exposed to tear gas, but to meet a man who'd suffered from it for 61 years instantly made a believer out of me regarding the horrors of gas warfare. Good grief.
I made a mental note to return on Valentine's Day in 1984 to see if the old boy was back, but I retired in 1983 and was not in the area that Valentine's Day. And as all history buffs know the last U.S. Doughboy from The Great War died in 2011 at age 110.
No army has used poison gas in warfare since 1918, and I see why. Saddam Hussein used it against his own people and other despots have used it, but not against another army in warfare.
Through the years I've often thought of my brief encounter with a gas attack victim, the only one I ever met. He was in such good spirits it was hard to believe he'd suffered for so long about something that happened but a moment before he got his mask on.
In retrospect I wish I'd gotten his contact information as I'd loved to have met with him again to listen to details of his lifelong battle against a cruel foe. In closing I wish a very happy Valentine's Day to one and all, and especially to fellow veterans currently at the VA hospital. Hope you get lots of visitors this week.
John Reichley is a retired Army officer and retired Department of the Army civilian employee.