By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
I quickly realized last Monday that I was the only person on the staff who had never covered the Welch Veterans Day Parade.
Photographer Eric DiNovo and myself met at the Telegraph’s parking lot and headed for McDowell County. As he drove, I thought about how to get the best story; the solution, as usual, was to talk with the people who were actually watching the parade.
Past stories and the recollections of other reporters alerted me that the parade was a big event for Welch, and I quickly saw evidence of that when we arrived in the city.
Parade units were getting lined up while people were finding vantage points along the parade route. Our first big challenge was to find a parking space.
We finally found a space after a couple of laps downtown. One veteran I spoke to later said parking your car was an even greater challenge than in the past.
The Vietnam veterans were especially pleased by the turnout, the show of patriotism and the respect veterans are now getting from the public. More than one Vietnam veteran I’ve interviewed in the past recalled being told to wear their civilian clothes when they came home. Civilians unhappy with the war often vented their frustrations on the military people coming home.
Now people are coming up to them and thanking them for their service. I try to do the same.
One theme that was emphasized that day was the need to remember our veterans’ needs when they come home. They often have to cope with physical and emotional scars as well as financial problems.
Many of them need continuous medical care and counseling, and this need for care could continue throughout their lives.
Last week I saw evidence of these needs when I spoke with Bill Toone, a veteran of World War II who joined the Army when he was 17 and went on to serve in Europe.
When he arrived at the beaches of Normandy, he and his fellow soldiers saw evidence of the sacrifices that had been made already. The beach sand was so bloody, you couldn’t tell it was sand, he recalled.
Toone’s 86 now, but you could still see in him the teenage boy who wasn’t going to let a detail like being underage keep him from joining the Army. He was 17 and making helmets in a defense plant, but he saw his older friends enlisting and decided that he was going, too. His parents would not sign the necessary permission form, so he persuaded the town drunk to go into a recruiting station and sign his mother’s name.
He gave her a half-pint of whiskey for her help.
Like thousands of other World War II veterans, Toon endured bitter cold — the winter of 1944-1945 was one of Europe’s coldest on record — and had to improvise.
One time he and a fellow soldier burned explosive out of a German artillery shell to keep warm.
They were not supposed to do things like that, but they had to keep warm. He could also remember incidents such as hearing artillery shells flying overhead while he was trying to sleep.
In another case, he and another soldier started firing their machine gun when they mistook water running over stones in a brook for the stomp of German combat boots.
Some officers came running over and asked them what they were doing. Later in the war, he made friends with German civilians by throwing grenades into a river. They picked up the stunned fish.
He is one of the thousands of veterans who served their country during wartime and peacetime. They were away from home for years and made a lot of sacrifices.
Now they are asking for some help in return.
Toone is among the many veterans in Mercer County and McDowell County who are hoping that the Veterans Administration will establish a veterans clinic in Mercer County. Veterans now often have to travel to the VA hospital in Beckley for medical care.
Local veterans advocates are working to get a clinic here, and with hope they will be successful.
Veterans have made a lot of sacrifices, so it’s time for the public to make a few sacrifices in return.
Today many people walk up to veterans and thank them for their service. Making sure they get the medical care they need is just one tangible way to express our gratitude.
They deserve nothing less.
Greg Jordan is the Daily Telegraph’s senior reporter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org