This week we are to remember the military men and women who served this country — especially those who saw combat and those for whom combat was the last thing they saw.
It is my time each year to remember a soldier who not only helped secure my freedoms, but provided me with life.
Raymond Evans was no different than the millions of other young men who lived in a civil society one month and became a fighting man the next — an American from the small state of Arkansas who participated in the bloodiest military conflict in recorded history. His story would be remarkable if not for the millions who lived, fought and died in the same tragic story.
As a teenager, Raymond Evans was a frontline soldier in Europe fighting under Gen. George S. Patton’s Army. Fighting in Europe was a daily struggle to remain alive, to dodge bullets and hold up against the elements. It was a daily life-and-death struggle, terrific and terrible in his memory, but an individual struggle lost in the overall story.
Raymond Evans volunteered to serve in Berlin as part of the Allied Occupation Force. When his combat peers rushed with maddening speed to board boats back to America, he chose to stay, feeling an obligation, he once said, to help facilitate the recovery of a land he was forced to destroy in a brutal effort to free its occupants.
Raymond Evans did return to America. He married Berniece. I had the good fortune to be their first grandchild.
Of the regrets I have in life, one is not properly recording the stories Grandpa Evans told of his terrible trek across Europe. Although the stories I remember Grandpa telling me as a child sounded adventurous and fun, they cause my adult soul to cringe and cry.
He spent a few nights alone, separated from his unit during a recon mission, huddled and desperately cold in a bomb crater. German voices and the unique clack of German mobilized units echoed all around. Many times, Grandpa would explain, he and his unit would find themselves in a shell exchange between Allied and German forces. They scrambled to find the middle ground, dig trenches and hope the middle ground coordinates remained unknown by German artillery.
The contrails from B-17s and British bombers often pointed the way to Berlin, Grandpa said. He told me he was once verbally reprimanded after standing in the middle of a hot combat field, mesmerized by a dogfight between Mustangs and Messerschmidts.
After the war, he once fought off two Soviet troops who were about to kill a former German soldier. I may be a little hazy on this, but the German soldier gave Grandpa his sheathed bayonet in thanks. We still have that artifact. Grandpa Evans said the German soldiers, once vanquished, were decent people with whom he often shared chocolates and stories. The Soviets, however, were mean, interested only in smokes and alcohol, Grandpa said.
And like many other soldiers, returned from that war and others, Grandpa Evans, when he did return to America, could not leave the war. Grandma Evans told me, especially in the first few years of his return, he would wake up in tears from a bad dream or just break down crying when a daily activity or image sparked a wartime memory.
Many years after his service, a doctor discovered damage to his shoulder. Grandma said the damage was a result of Grandpa using his upper body to break down doors during house-to-house fighting in the final days of the war. (Grandma Evans has since passed away, leaving us with one less voice of remembrance of those conflicted years.)
Using various items Grandpa kept from his war years, my family pieced together a shadowbox for Grandma Evans. Items in it include:
• A pass to travel in limited areas of Germany, provided during his service with the Allied Occupation Forces after the war. The pass is printed in English, French, Russian and German.
• His medals. The medals, located with his ID (dog tags) tag, include: Good Conduct; American Campaign; European-African-Middle East Campaign; Army of Occupation, Germany; Victory Medal, WWII.
• A photo he took from a Berlin rooftop. He told me it was one of the few roofs then still intact in Berlin.
• Bank notes from countries he walked and fought through as he made his way to Berlin.
• A Nazi eagle he ripped from a German uniform. The eagle is shown upside down — a small symbolic gesture to Raymond Evans and the others who walked through hell to help free a world.
• Cloth stars in each corner. The stars are not from the war. They are from a flag he proudly flew over his home.
The items in the shadowbox allow me and my family to remember the life and sacrifice of Raymond Evans, the struggle he survived and the struggle the world survived. We have to remember, because Raymond Evans survived the war outside but lost the battle inside. Raymond Evans is now a soldier, father, husband, brother, uncle, grandfather and friend stricken by Alzheimer's.
He does not remember the debt we owe him.
But on every Veterans Day, and every time I vote, I remember.