Why Veterans Remember

*Note: This essay was published at Military.com on October 31, 2018. It can also be found online here.

Being an army officer in the park with my kids down the street from our home in Manitou Springs, Colorado, it was pretty hard to miss the enormous World War I-era “Doughboy” statue. But there was no plaque, no marker. Who was he?

After some research at the local library, I later found he was a local kid, Marine Corps Pvt. Eber Duclo, that fought and died defending Paris during World War I. Before the war, he lived just across the street from the local elementary school where my daughter goes to school. Eber played baseball, worked in a grocery store, and from what I could find, he seemed like the classic all-American kid. He enlisted before the draft came, was shipped off to France in late 1917, and served as a machine gunner in the 4th Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division. When I learned his unit—the 2nd Infantry Division—that really stuck with me because I’m also a 2nd Infantry Division veteran, though my overseas service with that unit was in Korea and nearly a century later.

Eber’s brigade fought at the Battle of Belleau Wood, so hard the Germans called he and his fellow Marines “Devil Dogs,” a nickname that the Marine Corps has proudly held onto ever since. While the Germans had made devastating progress that spring, having gotten to within artillery range of Paris, the Eber’s unit attacked on June 6, 1918 to halt the German advance. By the end of that day, over one thousand Marines lay dead or wounded, one of the bloodiest in Marine Corps history.

But the Marines kept going. They had to because the Germans wouldn’t give up their positions. After that first big attack on June 6th, the adversaries traded fire for days, vicious firefights and engagements, including the one that killed Eber on June 15, 1918.

Having gotten to know him as a neighborhood kid and fellow veteran, it was hard to learn about Eber’s death. And it didn’t stop there, because that’s when I found out about the heartbreaking loss of another Marine in the same brigade, same division, who fell on the field just to Eber’s east.

His name was Maj. Edward Cole, another Marine in 4th Brigade. When Edward went to war, he was about my age and rank, and also married with two children. Moreover, Edward wrote about war and the military profession, as I do, in essays, articles, and even published books. I read one of his wonderful letters home to his family, and the thing that really caught my eye was that he included little cartoon drawings in the margins, something I’ve done for my own children every single day I’ve had to be away from them during extended periods of overseas military service. In one of his last, Edward told his young sons to go hug their mother and “take care of the only girl in our family.”

Just days before and a couple miles from where Eber was killed, Edward was wounded, badly, when he threw back a German grenade while attempting to take out a machine gun nest. He made it to the hospital but severe blood poisoning spread thorough his system, and despite two amputations to try to stop the infection, he died on June 18, 1918.

Even with such heavy losses, the Marines in 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division kept fighting and marching east, pushing the Germans back. And reading more on the unit ultimately led me to my own great-grandfather. Pvt. Rex Lampman had been too old for the draft, and instead enlisted in St. Paul, Minnesota, just before his 34th birthday on August 5, 1918. Rushed through boot camp in South Carolina, he was part of the last wave of troops to arrive as reinforcements (and replacements) in the final few weeks of fighting. He was with his infantry company the day the Armistice silenced the guns on November 11, 1918, and after, Rex served on occupation duty until March.

Then, in April 1919, Rex moved to Paris to join the editorial staff at the Stars & Stripes, the official newspaper of the American Expeditionary Force. In its very last issue of the war, on June 13, 1919, the editorial staff penned a final opinion essay that still stuns a modern reader. They wrote, “We’ve finished” and have the “satisfaction of knowing that we did a good job.” It was a quick and subdued acknowledgement of success before moving on to a charge and challenge to all veterans: “But can we carry the lesson home?” They saw this as necessary because they doubted civilians would or could ever know: “Nobody under God’s great tranquil skies can tell the rottenness of war” but those “who suffered through it.” Then, for emphasis, they reiterated the importance of the task, explaining that it was the “solemn duty” of every veteran to “act” to help others know what happened there.

It’s true that Eber, Edward, and Rex called to me specifically because I’m tied to them by choice of home, circumstance of life, and connection of family. We also share service in the 2nd Infantry Division. I have every reason to hold them in the highest regard and esteem. It makes sense that, by extension, I would feel a special place in my heart for the veterans of World War I, and what they did.

But, we should also recall that veterans, no matter the war or era, share common experiences: joining, training, deploying, fighting, dying, mourning, and especially remembering. As the historian Sir Michael Howard once wrote, that, “after all allowances have been made for historical differences, wars still resemble each other more than they resemble any other human activity.”

Imagine an experiment. What if we could use a time machine and bring Eber, Edward, and Rex to us now? Consider what they might ask about today’s fighting men and women:

  • Did you volunteer to fight?
  • Do you still use rifles?
  • Do you still need to take cover?
  • Do communications still get mistaken?
  • Do you still doubt the decisions of superior officers?
  • Were you prepared to send soldiers to their deaths?
  • Was any of the fighting worth it?

The truth is that today’s veterans likely have more in common with those that fought at Belleau Wood, or in World War I, than almost anyone they know, including friends or even family. This is due to the simple fact that the Doughboys, just as soldiers of today, served under the same flag for essentially the same cause. Only time separates them.

Veterans remember their fellow fighting ancestors because we know all too well how lucky we are to be alive and part of a great country like this. Veterans remember other veterans because we know, deep down, we are the same.

That’s why it falls to veterans to make sure—whether a century ago or today—that no sacrifice goes forgotten. Ever.

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