Thoughts & Views: The debt we owe is forever

The poem that accompanies this column was found among the papers of the late Luke A. Kenney of Nutley. I recently wrote about him after his daughter, Pat Rush, donated the former Army sergeant’s World War I uniform to the Nutley Museum.

Rush is not certain her father composed the verse, but I have not been able to find any evidence of another poet.

In any case, when I read it, I knew I wanted to use it for Veterans Day because, although written specifically about the veterans of World War I, it is — unfortunately — timeless.

On Tuesday, small groups will gather at various war memorials to remember American vets, living and dead, and to thank them for their service. But the number of those paying honor will, sadly, be minuscule. How quickly we forget.

Worse, over the generations, we have tended — after the welcome-home parades were over — to ignore the needs of those who served. Some vets never even got that parade.

As Kenney’s post-WWI poem notes, “future care” was promised. But the pledges were abjured, recanted, retracted. If you think that criticism is no longer valid, consider the recent scandal surrounding the VA medical system.

Today, veterans’ organizations have launched their own programs to offer counseling and job support to the men and women returning from deployment, and groups like Wounded Warriors are doing yeoman work. But despite all this, I wonder how many do not seek help, and who see themselves as “discards.”

The Great War troops, who came home to adulation, were eventually selling apples on the streets. There is one story that personalizes the “discards” description as it applied to them:

In 1918, during the Meuse- Argonne offensive, Lt. Col. George S. Patton lay gravely wounded in a battlefield shellhole. Braving heavy German machine-gun fire, a soldier named Joe Angelo dragged him to safety, saving the life of the future four-star general. For his heroism, Angelo (who hailed from Camden, N.J.) was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Patton later said that Angelo was “without doubt the bravest man in the American Army. I have never seen his equal.”

In 1932, Joe Angelo was among 43,000 people — 17,000 of them World War I veterans — who marched on Washington to demand payment of bonus money the government had promised the vets, most of whom were unemployed and struggling with Great Depression poverty. The Bonus Army, including the men’s wives and children, set up camps in the capital, where they lived for several weeks. But then these were destroyed in an infamous action by the U.S. Army.

Infantry and cavalry led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, himself a veteran of the Great War, drove the men, women and children from sites and burned their shelters and belongings. MacArthur’s troops were supported by six tanks, commanded by Maj. George S. Patton.

The following day, in an attempt to plead the case of his fellow marchers, Joe Angelo personally approached the officer whose life he had saved. Ordering his minions to take Angelo away, Patton declared: “I do not know this man.”

When I read that account, I immediately thought of Peter.

“But he began to curse and to swear, saying, ‘I know not this man . . .’” (Mark 14:71,72)

According to biographer Stanley Hirshson, Patton later told his fellow officers that, since the war, he and his mother had often given Angelo money and “set him up in business several times.” He explained his conduct thusly:

“Can you imagine the headlines if the papers got word of our meeting here this morning? Of course, we’ll take care of him anyway.”

I hope that was the case.

Peter repented. Did Patton?

– Karen Zautyk  

The Observer Staff