Every time I see a veteran, I take the time to thank him or her for their service. Some were drafted, but most, like my brother Javier, enlisted to serve their country, a sacrifice I don't take lightly.
"Thank you sir for your service," I said. He nodded and said, "You're welcome, young lady."
I went into the store but as I began looking through the racks, I realized I needed to know more about this man. He was living history, but not for long. According to the US Veterans Administration, approximately every two minutes a WWII veteran passes away, around 600 a day. Our time to hear about their experiences in the trenches, and to thank them for their service will end too soon.
I decided to head back out to get to know this veteran. I asked if I could sit down and chat with him for a while. He said sure. I learned his name is Elijah Walker and he's 89 years old. Born and raised in Arkansas, he enlisted in the Army because he didn't have much family and wanted a better life for himself. The year was 1944 and he was sent to work the supply lines in France and Germany, as were most African American service members. The military was still segregated, Mr. Walker told me, "Blacks over here, whites over there. But we was both getting shot at."
A little research yielded the probability that Mr. Walker may have been part of the famed Redball Express, a supply convoy that stretched across France to the frontline. Historian David Colley writes inThe Road to Victory, "Although three-fourths of Red Ball drivers were black...African American troops represented less than 10 percent of all military personnel in World War II...African American troops, in large measure, kept the supply lines rolling."
Eisenhower has credited them with helping to win the war.
While Mr. Walker said he didn't directly see combat, he said he faced danger every time he worked the supply line. Were you scared, I asked him?
"Oh yeah, we knew the Germans were aiming right at us. We had everything the soldiers needed. Gunshots, bombs, it was an everyday thing. But we had to keep going. We had orders," he said.
Mr. Walker said he was still working the lines when the Germans surrendered in 1945, "I remember everyone saying it was over, everyone hugging. They put down their weapons and that was it."
When I asked about the mood, "oh you know we were happy. They were tired. That's about all I remember."
But Mr. Walker's time at war was not yet over.
"I was transferred to the Pacific theater, to the Phillippines. The war was still going there," he told me.
He stayed until the Japanese surrendered, and finally came home in 1947 to an America that was still very much segregated, regardless of his service.
"That must have been so hard for you," I said. He replied, "Well, I grew up in Arkansas, I didn't know anything else different at those times."
Mr. Walker crisscrossed the country, looking for work, and started a family, fathering two daughters and two sons, before ending up in California.
"I ran out of money, so I guess I just stayed," he laughed.
That was 30 years ago. Today, as we sat on that bus bench, teenagers walked by playing with their phones, cars passed blaring the latest hits, oblivious to the man who'd fought for their freedom so many years ago.
"That's the sad part," he said. "The young ones, they don't seem to care. They don't know what it was like. You tell me, what would have happened if we hadn't won?"
I told him I didn't want to think about the outcome. "We'd have been slaves. Germany's slaves," he replied. "That's why we knew, we HAD to win. It was about freedom."
He gestured at the people walking near us. "They live free because of what we did."
He enjoyed hearing my brother had served two tours of duty in Iraq. "That must make you proud," he said. Absolutely, I replied. So proud.
I asked him what lessons he'd learned over time. He smiled and said he wasn't sure. "My brain's not working so well anymore, you see. Sometimes I remember things that happened 50 years ago, but this morning I couldn't tell you where I put my cane."
We laughed and I admitted I often don't know where my keys are. I noticed Mr. Walker was wearing pajama bottoms under his trench coat. He said he was recovering from pneumonia and had trouble breathing, so he'd walked a block to his favorite bench to sit in the sun.
Do you need anything? I asked.
He smiled. "Oh no, no, I'm fine, just enjoying the sun and our conversation."
I was, too. I was so thankful I'd met him, and heard his stories of being on the frontline. I was grateful I
I wonder in a world where twerking takes up way too much space in the media and our conversations, where having a nice car and wearing designer clothes seem like something worth bragging about, are we failing each other? Are we forgetting too much? Are we honoring the generations that put service before self?
I wish kids knew the name Elijah Walker the way they know Kim Kardashian. I think it's our duty to make sure they do. Mr. Walker and countless others, too soon forgotten, did their duty. Let's do ours.
- XO, D