By Stephen T. Banko III
I passed a pretty special day this month. Aug. 7 was National Purple Heart Day. As such, I was invited by Erie County Clerk Michael P. Kearns to be part of an audience of about 100 people in the ceremonial courtroom of Old County Hall.
Some of them I knew from the old days – the pre-Purple Heart days. We went to different schools together, played sports against each other, hung around the same parks and playgrounds and when we were old enough, hung around the same bars.
We chased the same girls, got into a few scrapes, but never let go of that neighborhood connection. Some guys were smart, some were good looking, other were tough as nails, and some others were great athletes. But the one thing we all had in common was that we were pretty ordinary.
Our dads worked in the mills and plants and factories. Our moms stayed home and raised us. I don’t think any one of us was rich and if one of us was poor, we didn’t know about it. We were just plain, ordinary guys looking forward with uncertainty to what lay ahead of us.
Being ordinary was both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because we were all pretty much on the same common ground, a curse because being ordinary was the fast track to Vietnam. None of us had dads we could pressure into getting us deferments. None of us had political juice that could have spared us from service. None of us was special enough to stay home from that faraway war.
While I knew some of the attendees personally, I knew them all from appearance. Some used walkers. Other got around with canes. A few guys gutted it out with just an unaided limp. I didn’t know their names but I knew the look in their eyes; a look I’d seen a thousand times long ago and far away. Their eyes were set with an unmistakable determination. They were hardened by what they’d seen and endured but they were eyes that revealed a pride that other veterans always recognize.
When the names were called there were some World War II vets, including my friend Sid Cole, a POW in Germany who was celebrating his 104th birthday. There were some Korean War vets. There were a lot of Vietnam vets and some newer vets from our Middle Eastern wars. And sadly, there were a couple of Gold Star moms and as they came forward to accept their pin and certificate their pride mingled with their continuing sorrow that ran down their cheeks and the cheeks of some of the hardened combat vets as well.
When each certificate was presented the veterans stood a little taller and straighter and, if only for a moment, were able to relegate their various infirmities to the back of their minds.
Mr. Kearns summoned us to the ceremony to revive a long dormant tradition that once recorded the names of county residents who bled for their country in a book of honor. The new book is named in honor of Bill Donovan, a World War I Purple Heart recipient and the World War II head of the Office of Strategic Services, which would evolve into the postwar CIA.
The Purple Heart is the one medal no one wants to receive, recognizing as it does a combat wound. But once it’s awarded no combat vet would part with it. It signifies the soldier honored his blood oath to risk everything for his fellow soldiers and the nation. A better writer than I once called the combat wound the “red badge of courage.”
A funny thing happened as I watched a proud bunch of ordinary guys come forward. They didn’t look ordinary anymore. In fact, they looked pretty special. Selfless service will do that, I guess.
Stephen T. Banko III, of Buffalo, served two tours of combat duty in Vietnam.