America’s Oldest Living Veteran: A Salute by Brian Vaszily, Founder of www.IntenseExperiences.com
A U.S. World War 1 Poster
I of course am not a World War 1 veteran, as my experience in the military lasted only part of basic training back in the 1980s. I had joined the Navy for a six-year service term as a “nuke” when I was eighteen, scheduled to train and work in the nuclear sciences onboard either a ship or a submarine. Basic training, though, took place on land … mine at a now defunct training center in Orlando, Florida.
In addition to enduring a lot of intense physical training, a lot of humiliation, a fair amount of crappy food, and a lot of camaraderie among recruits to keep one another going, we did a lot of standing at attention.
As practice for being “on watch” on ships, standing in the same position for 45 minutes or longer was typical.
During one such standing-at-attention stint about four weeks into basic training, my knees started to shake… and I couldn’t stop them. The next time, and the time after that, they also shook uncontrollably. Long story short, the medical center determined I had a condition that only was an issue when standing at attention – something I didn't do in the civilian world -- and gave me a medical discharge.
Though my time in the service was short, I still came home flooded with memories … some of them sad or otherwise challenging, but others funny such as being required to salute all squirrels on base for the duration of training by an irate commander.
But I never even completed basic training due to the medical discharge, and I certainly never went to war. Therefore I can only distantly imagine what type of memories any veteran must harbor.
My father and grandfather were both World War II veterans. My grandfather died when I was nine so a few of his stories, and more so stories of the lives of soldier’s wives during that wartime, have come to me from his wife, my grandmother.
My father died when I was twenty so I heard more active duty stories from him, but as he was in an intelligence division of the U.S. Army involved in a variety of very secretive missions in Germany and elsewhere, he mostly had to remain silent about what he had done in the war to his dying day.
So I of course wish I could have heard much more of both of their experiences. Another man, still living and -- considering his age -- still apparently quite robust who must have many worthwhile stories to tell, is named Frank Buckles.
FRANK BUCKLES -- AMERICA'S OLDEST LIVING VETERAN
Frank Buckles is now 109 and lives on a 330-acre cattle farm in Charles Town, West Virginia.
Frank Buckles, America's Oldest Living Veteran
He is America's oldest living veteran, and the United States’ last living veteran of World War 1, the “War to End All Wars” that lasted from 1914-1918.
To put that into perspective, there are 3 million living veterans from World War II, 3 million living veterans from the Korean War, and over 7 million living veterans from the Vietnam War.
On being among the last living “Great War” veterans, Buckles says, “For many years, I would read the figures in The Torch [a veterans magazine] in two columns -- one was the number of 4.7 million-something veterans who served, and the other, which kept going down, was the number of us that were still alive. I knew one day it would come to this."
In World War 1, Buckles served as an ambulance driver in England and France, and when the war ended in 1918 was assigned to a prisoner-of-war escort company charged with returning POWs to Germany.
Later in his life, while he was on business as a civilian in the Philippines in 1941 during World War, II, Buckles was taken prisoner by the Japanese. He was held prisoner in their notoriously harsh conditions for 3 ½ years, where he lost 50 pounds and witnessed executions of fellow prisoners. He was rescued in 1945.
Another U.S. World War 1 Poster
When asked about the secret of his long life, Buckles replied: "Hope."
He also added, "[W]hen you start to die... don't."
Considering that I was only able to serve for under two months but still have dozens of stories to tell about the experience and the wonderful characters who were around me in basic training, this last remaining World War I veteran must have countless memories that we all would love to know … and probably need to know to lend perspective to our times.
Surely if anything is a national treasure, the oldest living American veteran is.
Frank Buckles, I salute you, and all the veterans who risked their lives -- including the millions who died -- for our freedom: