Today on Memorial Day I’d like to share a story with you all about my Great Uncle Stanley, a veteran of the second Great War.
He wasn’t, at least not at the end of his life, a very well-liked man. He was miserly, rude, and sometimes downright mean. He was never abusive or an alcoholic, or anything, just not very pleasant. And – I think – terribly lonely. Much of it by his own design, but lonely all the same.
All that aside, he and I shared a lot of weeks in the summer together when I was little watching Yankees games, crab fishing, looking at his strange collection of African masks, and so forth. I, therefore, never had any unhappy encounters with him. I loved getting to spend time down there with him and his sister, with whom he lived (neither of them ever married). I loved smelling his pipe smoke, to this day one of my favorite smells on the planet.
But this isn’t about how different two people’s experiences with the same individual can be. Every once in a while, Uncle Stanley would tell me about The War. I knew he’d been overseas during World War II, I knew he’d been in some rough parts of it, but aside from that he was always pretty vague. I’m not sure if his age precluded him remembering some details or the experience itself packed away some of the memories for his own mental safety, as so many soldiers do. Always I promised myself – as I got older and really understood what he must have gone through – I would sit down with a tape recorder and have him tell me the whole story.
He died while I was serving in Germany, the same place where he fought 60 years earlier. I’ll never get that chance, now. His war medals were inherited by my aunt, who very graciously passed them on to me, knowing that my time in the military brought me a little closer to what those medals really meant. A bronze star, a silver star, and a purple heart with two clusters (the equivalent of three purple hearts). A few days ago, I finally got the official citation for his bronze star from the person managing his estate.
The full citation is below.
AWARD OF BRONZE STAR MEDAL
Private First Class Stanley P Magielnicki, 517th Parachute Infantry, United States Army, for heroic achievement in action. On 14 January 1945, Company G was attacking near Butay, Belgium. While crossing an open field in the face of a heavy enemy barrage, the second platoon sustained many casualties. Private First Class Magielnicki, with a comrade, bravely exposed himself to go to the aid of a severely injured man. After removing the casualty so safety, he observed that the enemy was concentrating fire on a number of wounded men nearby. PFC Magielnicki, disregarding the terrific intensity of the enemy fire and the apparent hopelessness of the situation, moved among the casualties aiding and encouraging the injured men. With the aid of another man, PFC Magielnicki evacuated the casualties and saved the lives of several men. PFC Magielnicki demonstrated courage and devotion to duty in keeping with the finest traditions of the military service.
I don’t care how angry and miserable he was at the end of his life. My great uncle served with honor, and I’m remembering him today on Memorial Day.
There is a stream of people out there who seek to make people guilty for having barbecues today because they haven’t been face down in a trench knifing a terrorist. I’m not asking that. In fact, those “rough men who stand ready to do violence” on your behalf, those who gave it all, would probably encourage it. That’s what they were fighting for. They were the few, fighting for the many, so that the rest didn’t have to. So that the rest could be secure in knowing that tyranny and terror have no place between our shores. Therefore, I hope you enjoy yourself today – I bet they would, too. As you do, however, I encourage you to lift your glass. As we say of fallen comrades in the United States Air Force: “Here’s a toast//to the host//of the men we boast…”
Boast them today with your celebration, and, if you can stand it, boast them with the way you live your life every single day. You don’t have to wear a uniform to live with honor.