Patti Wenzel

Remembering our veterans — every day

By - Nov 11th, 2010 04:00 am
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Members of the 28th Infantry, or as the Germans called them “The Bloody Bucket.” My dad is the man kneeling on the left.

Why do we celebrate Veteran’s Day?

That question was posed to my daughter for a 7th grade writing assignment a few years ago. She innocently wrote that we shouldn’t honor veterans just on Nov. 11, but every day of the year, since it was their sacrifice that made it possible to live in freedom. Her piece was submitted to the newspaper (where I was news editor) for a children’s opinion page.

Surprisingly, it drew some of our most virulent responses.

Readers called her a spoiled brat for insisting we not honor veterans with a special day, saying that she had no idea what veterans went through. Some even insinuated that she was raised by liberal, peace­-loving hippies. That one makes me laugh — those people had obviously never met me!

I’m telling you this story because I agree with my daughter —  we should celebrate our veterans every day of the year. I strongly believe that it is because of veterans that we continue to have the freedoms enumerated in our Bill of Rights, and the reason other countries have come to live under democratic governments.

And I celebrate Veteran’s Day every day because of my father, a combat veteran of World War II.

My dad never spoke about what happened in Europe. I know a few details – because he was fluent in German, he was a forward scout as a member of the 28th Infantry. He was an expert sharpshooter. He earned a Purple Heart after throwing himself over his commanding officer and sustaining sulfur burns from a grenade blast.

My dad, Jacob Breitigam – so young and full of vigor – ready to fight the Nazis.

His mother had a blue star in her window — as did many others during the war — and for months she worried that her only child was dead when he was listed MIA.

He was drafted in his mid-twenties and gladly went to serve his nation, and the country his parents adopted. When the war was over, my dad came home and blended into the greatest generation, working for the post office and tending bar at every tavern on the south side of Milwaukee.

The Vietnam War dominated the news when I was a child and my dad would watch Walter Cronkite’s coverage with a sad, knowing look. As my brother approached his eighteenth birthday, dad was noticeably nervous. He had seen the horrors of war, but understood the obligation of young men to defend the freedoms of our nation. There was great relief within our family when my brother received a high number in the draft lottery and was never called.

I always knew my dad as a hard drinker, I thought a byproduct of working in blue-collar taverns. But after speaking to my cousin, also a veteran and the founder of Dryhootch, I realize now that he probably drank to forget what he saw and experienced in Europe. He died when I was 16 and is buried at Wood National Cemetery in Milwaukee.

He did what he was supposed to do – went to school, was drafted and fought for his country, came home and raised three children. He lived a better life than his parents and grandparents and was able to provide his three children with a lifestyle he could have never dreamed of.

There are hundreds of thousands of stories like my father’s across America. Veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, the Gulf War and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have all followed the same track – valiantly serving their country and then returning home to live their lives.

You probably work with a veteran, or perhaps have one in your family. Take a moment to say thank you to them today and every day. They deserve it.

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