I plopped down on the bench seat next to the patient we had just picked up as my partner closed the door of the ambulance behind us. I’d already gone through the usual pleasantries and introductions with the guy and was making him comfortable for the trip from a small ER for to a slightly larger hospital with an ICU. The patient was sick and advanced in years. I suppose you could say that he was elderly and infirm. The years he had seen were catching up with him and he didn’t seem to think too much of it. He wasn’t very talkative to this ambulance guy who was loading him up and trying to make conversation and I tried to find something to spark it, else I respect his wishes and let him be.
I hooked his nasal cannula up to the main oxygen tank and slipped on the automatic blood pressure cuff. While doing so, I noticed an old, faded tattoo on his arm and figured out what we could talk about for the 30 minute trip to the next hospital. As I was hooking up the patches for his EKG I asked him, “So, you’re a Navy man, eh?”
He looked at me like I wasn’t worth spit and said “Naw, I wasn’t ever one of those bastards.”
I have the utmost respect for the Navy. My grandfather served aboard ship in the Pacific Theatre in WW2 and was one of the lucky and skillful ones who lived to tell about it. I still remember the stories he told, at least the ones he would talk about, and I have always held the service of He and others like him in the highest reverence. So I was taken aback by the patient who’d just derided something I happen to hold so dear.
“Really?” I asked. “I saw that tattoo on your arm and figured you might have been”.
“Son, ain’t you ever seen a Coast Guard tattoo before?” he snapped back.
Honestly, I never had. I live in the Midwest where Coasties are pretty scarce. I’ve only rarely chanced to meet someone who is actually in, or had been in the Coast Guard. His tattoo was pretty new to me and I explained my ignorance to him. He wasn’t offended. He began to open up and we talked the whole rest of the trip to the ICU. He explained his aversion to the Navy by telling me this:
“I was there when they stormed the beach at Normandy and I tried my damndest to rescue the men those Navy guys were dropping in the water. The guys drivin’ the landing craft were opening the gates too far away from shore and making those poor soldiers drop into water too deep for them to swim. Lots of men drowned under the weight of the packs they were wearing without firing a shot. We tried to rescue them, pulled as many as we could into our boats as they were shooting at us. I couldn’t believe that the Navy would do that. I just can’t believe it.”
He continued telling me about his service in WW2 and at D-Day as I sat there, spellbound by his stories. I was in awe of him and what he had done. I was humbled to be in his presence and was enthralled by what he was telling me. He told me stories of the invasion the likes of which I’ve never read about nor heard. I learned more history of our country and the service of the men who defended it in those thirty minutes than I ever could in a history book.
I was humbled. I was honored to be in this man’s presence. I couldn’t believe my luck to get a chance to sit and talk one on one with a living piece of history. What a man he was. I had never heard WW2 stories from the perspective of the Coast Guard and I am so thankful I had the opportunity to hear his stories.
Before I knew it, we had arrived at the destination hospital and I realized I hadn’t done any of the normal things I do on transfers. I hadn’t gotten signatures, I hadn’t written down the vitals more than once, and I was way behind on paperwork as it was. I didn’t care. I had listened to the patient’s stories the whole time and I figure he would have told me had something been wrong. I got the signature and my partner and I unloaded him from the ambulance. We continued talking as we wheeled him up to the floor. He was friendly now and very talkative and I was sad that the transport hadn’t taken longer. When we got him to his room and transferred him to his new bed, the ICU nurse came in to take report. I gave it, there had been no change in his condition from one place to the other and the only thing I did was tell the nurse that the patient was a national hero. It’s not every day that someone from my generation gets to meet and talk to a living part of history, a true national hero the likes of which I could never be.
I never got a chance to talk to the patient again, but I know he’s going to be just fine, regardless of what happens. Men like him take their challenges in stride and overcome them. That’s what being a hero means.
I wrote this on the anniversary of the D-Day invasion June 6th 2011. On that day, 67 years ago, our nation proved we had what it took to overcome the looming darkness and fight the good fight. We still have that resolve within our nation and the men and women of our military are out there proving it every day. Thank you, all.
Here’s an Excerpt from Ronald Regan’s speech given on the 40th Anniversary of the invasion:
"Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet, you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief; it was loyalty and love.
The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge–and pray God we have not lost it–that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.
You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One's country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it's the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you."
"Today, as 40 years ago, our armies are here for only one purpose–to protect and defend democracy. The only territories we hold are memorials like this one and graveyards where our heroes rest."
Well said, Mr. President.