Not All Heroes Wear Medals

When I was eight I found a map among an old box of things in the sitting room of at my grandmothers. It was there I often sat and watched her stories with her, spending summer days with her and my uncle, playing in the yard or just being on the sidelines with ‘all of the grownups.’ I loved my grandparents dearly, and as far back as I could remember there was a large missing piece that was my grandfather; he died when I was barely four, yet I had these fond memories of him taking me for walks up and down the neighborhood. I remember him boasting to the neighbors and his friends at what a fine lad I was, and look how fast I could move. He was extremely proud of me and the sheer notion of my being his grandson seemed to fill him with joy. That is how I remember it, anyways.

I really don’t remember the years after he died, being only four or five I still didn’t have tons of recollections from that time of my life – just fleeting bits and pieces. But I do know his presence in the house was missed. My grandmother didn’t talk of him too often, but when she did it was how much they had been in love and how much she missed him. It wasn’t until that summer day when I was digging through the old boxes that I would learn more, yet learn less.  In an old yellow plastic bin the size of a shoe box were old papers and trinkets. Among them I pulled out a 1956 Gulf Gasoline map of Pennsylvania. Naturally curious I pulled the map out and began to unfold it.  When I did, a few things slid out and fell out on the floor, having felt them slip out and cross down lap. What I found I knew to be something I would have seen on M*A*S*H* episodes with my grandmother. They were a pair of Sergeant’s stripes (E-6), one bar of old campaign ribbons, and a set of dog tags.

Asking my grandmother what they were, she would go on to tell me that my grandfather had been in the Army in World War II.  I was very curious to know more, but she told me that there wasn’t very much else to tell. She let me keep them, and the map (which I still have). I think as time went on I would eventually ask more about him. As I got bigger and could be of use around the house to move heavy things, I often was the prime person to get to pick up the TV in the sitting room so she could get after the linens and things that were stored in the old trunk. Every time we did this I would see the folded flag. I would ask what that was, and she would say it was my grandfather’s from his funeral.

Sometimes I would go in there when she wasn’t around just to have a look at it. Other than a few photos and faint memories, those ribbons and patches and flag were about all I had of my grandfather. Over time, cleaning out of the eaves and attic resulted in finding a small blue box from Christmas stationary; the kind of old, 1940’s stationary that was something worth putting that 6 cent stamp on because it was elegant and ornate. The box had a few more things from his service period. I found some old black and white pictures in there, too. Pictures of the jungle; pictures of Quonset huts; pictures of smiling Army guys (including my grandfather); and pictures of bodies. When I showed my grandmother, she took the photos and tore them up. She was very upset and said I ought not to be looking at rubbish like that.

I never figured out whose bodies, or how or why. In my mind, I remember them as German soldiers…

She didn’t tear them all up, as a few were left over and they were the more innocuous ones. I also had found an old book from his basic training at Fort Dix, NJ.  Inside the cover was an old photograph of him from the 60’s when he worked at the Armor Meats plan in Pittsburgh, along with a copy of his enlistment paperwork.  I was probably twelve by then and really wanted to know more about my grandfather. One night, probably while waiting to watch Mamma’s Family or something I struck up a conversation, wanting to know more. I brought up the old blue stationary box, the Fort Dix book, and said that I wasn’t sure why no one wanted to talk about the war. For whatever reason, she decided to give me some of the story.

They were both a very Catholic people and lived strictly by those principals.  In September of 1941, my grandfather enlisted in the Army because she said he felt the tides of war coming, and if he was going to be drafted he’d rather join up on his own terms. His enlistment paperwork said that he was his term of service was voluntary, showed his occupation to be butcher, and his highest level of education attained was 9th grade. He signed on to be a supply clerk in the Quartermaster Corps. I guess these days my grandfather would be what is referred to as a ‘conscientious objector.’ He did not want to hurt or kill people, and he felt that per the Bible this was wrong; but given the nature of the world and his patriotic duty he enlisted in the Army anyways and requested to be a non-combatant. He felt it was his duty to help America, and I am sure that sense of duty was solidified after the bombing of Pearl Harbor that December.

My grandfather spent two years from 1942 to 1944 forward deployed to Trinidad and Tobago. I was able to really piece all of this together after I had become an adult, and spent time in the Army, myself. He worked logistics as a “supply guy”, pretty quickly working up the ranks to corporal and then sergeant. He made E-6 while still forward deployed. I imagine most days were boring, moving and loading supplies being shipped to northern Africa for the campaign there. I like to think in his free time he wrote his wife, enjoyed the tropics, and was thankful that he was not in harm’s way, and still supporting those who were.

He returned stateside near the end of ’44 and was discharged in November of 1945. He returned home to Mansfield, NJ and eventually settled more west in Pittsburgh. He got a job with Armor Meat’s, but as a security guard and not on the plant floor. He remained with Armor until he retired. When I asked my grandmother if there were anymore relics or paraphernalia associated with his service in the war – uniforms, medals, maps, anything – she said no. When he was discharged he gave everything he had been issued to the Salvation Army and threw the rest away. Whatever little was left was most likely in that linen trunk, the blue stationary box, or somewhere else in the eaves.

When it was all said and done (and years had gone by) I was able to find: a silver ID bracelet, some copies of his discharge papers, a duffle bag, a few medals including his Good Conduct medal, the book from basic training, and less than a dozen photos. I also found his ‘special patrolman’ badge and a letter from city inducting him into the quasi police ranks of Pittsburgh (I also found a small billy club, which I assume was his only sidearm).

My own father has different memories of his dad, and they aren’t pleasant.  They never saw eye to eye. My dad was the middle child; he was mostly estranged from his father after he turned eighteen and moved out. They never seemed to be close and I always felt sorry for my father because of that. He would describe punishment, beatings, criticisms, and other niceties associated with their strict Catholic household. Yet, it was this relative unknown about my grandfather that led me to take an interest in the military. I wanted to know what he had done, what he had seen, and what it felt and meant to serve a cause that was bigger and more great than oneself. I really think that my decision to join the Army was more about trying to discover this, and prove to my long-deceased grandfather that he still would be proud of me (as much as it was a decision to prove something to myself).

I did not join the Quartermaster Corps.  I joined the Army before there was a September 11th, however I had no qualms with the use of violence. I joined a ‘Be All You Can Be’ Army. And I used the Army to pay for my college education. And when it was all said and done, I decided to seek an officer’s commission based on the recommendation of a close family friend who had made a career as a National Guard helicopter pilot. When I deployed to Iraq for my first tour, like my best friend had done, I took a memento from my grandfather with me; I put one of his Staff Sergeant stripes under the padding in my helmet. I did this because I wanted his guidance; I wanted his calm demeanor I was told he had; I wanted the piousness and zeal he must have had as a faithful Catholic, too.

I like to think that under those E-6 stripes I stayed calm and remembered the bigger picture, and kept my humility when others displayed avarice. I like to think that it helped me remember my humanity in times when it was often difficult or easy not to do so. I like to think he helped me try and make every good deed I did a good one. And I hope that he wasn’t ashamed when in times of darkness, I wasn’t good and displayed no kindness to my fellow man.

I keep his stuff in the same blue stationary box. It’s a little worse for the wear.  I have my accolades in a display case (after about five years of really debating on if I wanted to or not). I have his flag in a case, but I really don’t think about his ‘stuff’ too often. He clearly didn’t think much of it himself, if after the war it just got tossed away or into an old box. And I have thought about that. He saw no combat, he was never decorated for bravery, he never stepped foot on contested soil. No, he was just an honorable man who did an honorable thing, which was to adhere to his own values and beliefs while still supporting the nation, and his comrades. And when his time was up, he came home to his wife and went on with life.

Yet my mother’s father (my other grandfather, whom we affectionately call ‘pop’) is still alive. And I had an entire lifetime to really try and get to know him, listen to his wisdom – however soft spoken – and learn from his lifetime of experiences. Pop was too young to join the service and go off with his brothers and cousins. He didn’t turn eighteen until 1947. He played high school foot ball and he played it well. So well he was offered to try out for the Steelers. But, he opted to seek employment in the steel mills because ‘professional foot ball would not pay the bills.’ He married his high school sweetheart and they had two children.

He grew up in foster homes, finally being taken in by an Aunt who found out he had escaped yet another foster home and had been sleeping in a big old oak tree. He was washing up in the restroom of a nearby gas station, and was scrounging the streets for food and change.  He was five. He was taught the value of getting a high school education. He was a steel worker, an iron worker, and a member of the carpenters guild. He worked construction, was self-taught when it came to the various drafting and mathematics required to do sheet-metal work for ducting and fabricating. He will still point to a building or house around Pittsburgh and go “I poured them concrete steps”, or ” I laid all that brickwork for that house.” He worked his entire adult life, and now in his late eighty’s he would still chose to work if his body wasn’t slowly giving out.

He still works in the metal shop in his garage. What tools he hasn’t given away I keep in my small garage. All the years growing up I spent chasing a ghost and seeking glory via wanting to join the Army, I wish I had spent asking him for stories. All those summers between school years I wish I had spent in his workshop learning those trades, not out chasing girls and sneaking beers from the old man’s fridge. In these golden years I spend a lot more time with him and talking (not as much as I could though which I still regret – and will when he is gone, because I can still change that).

If my grandfather and I could sit down in a bar and have a beer and swap stories, we would have very different stories to share. I am sure that, if still alive, that would never happen however as I believe he did not drink. But I am sure he would still look at me and be proud. And, given my own life and the time and context that I have had to semi-reconstruct his – I would still be proud of him, too. And Pop – he has told me in no uncertain terms that he is proud of me, which for him is a difficult thing to do, as him and feelings don’t make for good bedfellows. He endured hardships and struggles I could only imagine or dream of – yet to him, I am his shining and only grandson, the war hero [not my words, mind you].Well, both of my grandfathers are my hero’s, too.

Not all heroes wear lots of medals. Not all heroes wear medals at all.

About anotherwarriorpoet

Mathew Bocian served as a Captain in the United States Army with the Stryker Brigade and was deployed to Mosul and Tal'Afar in 2004 - 2005, and to Baghdad for The Surge in 2007 - 2008. He left the Army in 2012 and now uses his poetry as a way to heal from the traumas of war, while attempting to express to readers the realities of war. He is the recipient of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and holds a master's from the Graduate School for Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.
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