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Veteran’s Day

November 12, 2014

Both of my grandfathers had lengthy military careers with the Army. I never knew my grandfather Bartlett (Charles D.). He was born in 1890 and died when my dad was in college, before my parents met. I know he retired a Brigadier General from the Army Reserves, and that he trained fighter pilots in San Antonio in World War I. During and after World War II he was working around the country helping to establish Selective Service.

I did however know my grandfather Ezzard (Lt. Col. W. T.).  I was fortunate enough to have him in my life until I was almost 40.  He was called “Colonel,” or “Colonel Ezzard” by most people outside the family. His grandchildren knew him as Poppa. Poppa served in WWII where he earned both the Purple Heart and the Silver Star. He was in North Africa, and I believe the Silver Star was given to him for a reconnaissance mission (one of several) he led behind enemy lines. I remember my mother telling the story of how it was weeks before they knew he had been seriously wounded in North Africa, and how each day her older sister would walk to town where the list of casualties and missing was posted to see if his name was on it, because there had been no news of or from him. At one time they even announced on the radio that he had been killed in action. Thankfully, the letter saying he had been wounded (while defusing a landmine), came almost immediately after that. He later said that the jeep transporting him to the field hospital got lost, and it was 24 hours before he got medical attention–with landmine shrapnel piercing one lung.

Poppa served in Korea after the armistice and aided in the reconstruction effort.  He once said that his name would be on the ridge pole of buildings in Korea long after his monument in a cemetery was gone. One story I remember about Korea, which is actually Mom’s story, is that the speed limit everywhere was 15 miles per hour. So when Poppa came home and tried to teach my mom how to drive, he would scream at her every time she went over 15. Hence, she has never been comfortable driving.

Poppa, like many of his generation, didn’t talk much about the war, any of them.  It was only in his later years that he started telling a few stories to his grandchildren. During one visit when I was in my twenties I somehow managed to get this gruff, taciturn man to relate the chronology and story of his life while the two of us were sitting in the living room after lunch. I wish I had written down everything he told me. I’ve forgotten so much.

The stories I know best are from Vietnam. My grandfather was there twice–the first time he was on General Westmoreland’s staff, and the second time was after he had retired, and returned as an agricultural advisor with the state department. What I learned from the stories about my grandfather from Vietnam make me just as, and perhaps more, proud of him than anything he else he accomplished, because they reveal his character. My grandfather was always looking out for the wellbeing and rights of the enlisted men. Once, he went into the officers’ mess, and found a side of beef in the refrigerator that had been intended for the enlisted men’s dinner. He re-confiscated it, and returned it to the right kitchen. Poppa had great integrity and unfortunately was working in an environment where many of his peers did not. Mom said that at one point they had to transfer him to another location to protect him–he had made such enemies of the other officers in his efforts to stand up for those of lower ranks.

One of the stories I treasure the most is one that I did not learn from family at all–in fact, I don’t think anyone in the family even knew this–well, maybe my grandmother, but my mother had not heard it. Back when I worked for the Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, we were having a special lunch–perhaps it was a farewell party for a staff member–I can’t remember the occasion. One of the dishes that had been brought was Vietnamese.  I was sitting next to an older colleague, Bob, and remarked that I loved Vietnamese food.  He said, “So do I.  I have loved it ever since I served in Vietnam.”  I asked him what he had done, and he told me he had been a chaplain.  As he spoke, I found myself wondering if he had known Poppa. I was hesitant to ask, feeling that it was akin to someone in Italy asking me if I knew their cousin in NewYork City. But something was telling me that he just might have known him, so I said, “My grandfather served in Vietnam as well.  I’m wondering if you knew him. He was Col. Ezzard.”  Bob looked at me and said, “I certainly did know your grandfather.  I knew him very well. He was a man of great integrity and honor.”  And then he told me this story:

“At one point one of the enlisted men came to see me, and he said he wasn’t sleeping. I asked him why, and he said, ‘because the officers have their girlfriends sleeping in our beds, and we have to sleep in the floor.’ I told him I would follow up on it and get it stopped, but he had to promise me he would testify about it.  Often, they would tell me what was going on, but were too afraid to tell anyone higher up.  He promised me he would, and I went to speak to the commanding officer about the situation. His response was, ‘I’m not doing anything about that.’  I told him, ‘yes, you are, or I am going over your head until this gets dealt with.’ At that point he called your grandfather in and assigned him to this case. Your grandfather dealt with it and was responsible for many officers being dishonorably discharged.  I had a great deal of respect for your grandfather.”

That story was such a gift.  I never expected to learn something about my grandfather from a colleague at work. The other story that shows what kind of human being Poppa was happened long after his retirement. As a retired officer, his retirement check, (pension?) was relatively high. When he began hearing news reports about how low the salaries were for the enlisted men, and how they were struggling financially, he sent his retirement check back with a letter saying, “I don’t need this, please use it to supplement the salaries of the enlisted men.”  The Army wrote back and said, “Colonel Ezzard, I’m sorry, but we can’t do that.”

And of course, one of the most lasting endeavors of both my grandfather and grandmother was to bring my foster aunt, Jane, from Vietnam to provide her with an education and a path to a better life.  And over the next decade or more, they helped Jane bring over the rest of her siblings. Jane’s older sister was my grandfather’s housekeeper, and he became good friends with the family during his time in Vietnam. And now there are generations of that family here in this country as a living testimony to Poppa and Grammy’s generosity and concern.

On this Veteran’s Day I am thankful for Poppa’s, and Grandfather Bartlett’s service, but most of all, I am thankful for Col. Ezzard’s integrity, honor, bravery in standing up for the rights of others, and his concern for those of lower rank and income. Under that gruff exterior, hidden behind that bark we all jumped at, was a heart of gold.

W. T. Ezzard in WWII

W. T. Ezzard in WWII

Poppa waiting for the mail to arrive in Vietnam (during second tour, as an agricultural advisor).

Poppa waiting for the mail to arrive in Vietnam (during second tour, as an agricultural advisor).

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