Facing dwindling numbers already, VFW vets have new enemy: COVID-19
On a chilly Wednesday afternoon in November, six days before Veterans Day 2014, Tom Mathews bellied up to the bar of his favorite joint on West Main Street in Grafton.
He was there for his usual: A small bag of Dan Dee pork rinds, coupled with a tall glass of Coca-Cola, over ice.
The angular 90-year-old who was calmer than a lake at sunset recited his lines with a half-grin, as he put in his order.
That’s because his order was already in front of him. “Let me guess,” the person behind the bar said, with a full grin.
It was their schtick at Memorial City No. 381, the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in his patriotic hometown.
“Somewhere to go, something to do,” Mathews said to a visitor with a notebook.
“Now, what can I tell you? What do you want to know?”
“Everything,” the reporter replied. “Everything you want to tell me.”
For the next 30 minutes or so, with modesty — plus a caveat that we’ll get to — Mathews told his war story.
“It wasn’t that dramatic,” he said.
Except that it was. It was World War II.
He was drafted a year after his graduation from Grafton High School in 1942. He had actually wanted to enlist when he was 17 but his parents wouldn’t sign the papers.
Crossing the Atlantic on his way to the European Theater of War, he was almost swept overboard in rough seas.
Had that occurred he would have missed Mount Vesuvius, which timed its volcanic eruption as the troop ship dropped anchor in Italy.
His war ended with his nose pressing the soil in southern France.
He remembered belly-flopping onto the dirt when the enemy rifles and machine guns cracked, sending rounds snapping the air over his head.
He remembered the Boston brogue of his buddy Eddie.
“Matt,” the New Englander called out, using the West Virginian’s nickname. “I’m hit.”
Mathews hated himself for not answering his best friend.
He was afraid he’d give away the unit’s position if he did. And who knew how many Germans were out there?
Turns out he only had to worry about one.
The soldier prodded his prone body with a boot (Mathews had been trying to play dead) and told him, in accented English, that he could get up now.
It was Sept. 24, 1944, and Mathews was a prisoner of war.
“Just like that.”
Where everybody knows your name
For Mathews, the Grafton VFW was a lot like the old TV show “Cheers,” and the lyrics of its theme song.
Like the song says, it was nice to drop into a place where everybody knew your name.
You could have your usual waiting for you while you watched the Mountaineers and groused (good naturedly) about politics and how those new telephones are just way too complicated.
Unless you made yourself learn how to work one: Then, you could show off pictures of your new Dodge Ram pickup and your grandson, who just got out of Basic at Fort Jackson and might want to make a career of it.
If you were part of the honor guard and had just finished helping with the final salute of a soldier who went on, you’d hit the VFW before you went home to watch, from your front porch, the lengthening of the shadows.
These days, a lot of old soldiers are hunkering down, trying to stay clear of another enemy: COVID-19.
Kevin Light, who is the state adjutant and quartermaster of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of West Virginia, said attendance at posts has trailed off because of the coronavirus.
Light is a Buckhannon native who joined the U.S. Navy in 1979 and stayed for 26 years. He saw combat in the Gulf War. By VFW standards, he’s still a kid.
The World War II guys are dying daily. The Korea guys and Vietnam guys are starting to go, too.
“Our members in West Virginia are older,” Light said. “That makes them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.”
Parades have been canceled and honor guards are standing down as funerals have been rethought.
A lot of the VFW posts aren’t open as much as they were.
West Virginia’s 75 posts have been bestowed with CARES Act money from Charleston, though, Light said. That helps a lot with maintenance and bills.
And because you never leave a guy behind, each post has launched a “buddy check,” call chain in response to the pandemic.
“That’s keeping an eye out,” Light said. “Just calling and checking on someone if you haven’t heard from him for a while.”
Steve Blinco said he’s sad Morgantown High School students won’t be able to hear any stories today.
He’s the MHS civics teacher and Key Club advisor who is chief organizer of the school’s annual Veterans Day program, built around the 18 graduates who died in Vietnam.
“I think that’s when our kids really get what sacrifice is,” Blinco said.
After all, he said, most of the names on the etched monument on the campus were newly drafted, or newly enlisted, right after their graduations.
“I tell them, ‘Hey, these guys walked the same hallways as you, sat in the same classrooms as you and went to football games just like you.’ They look at those names a lot differently from then on.”
Most important of all, he said, the veterans who speak at the program always talk about moving past hate and prejudice.
The “enemy,” they’ll say, was, more often than not, another young guy, just like them — only in a different uniform.
An old soldier’s request
Which comes back around to Tom Mathews’ caveat.
He was a POW for nearly eight months. He lost around 40 pounds, and the diminutive, naturally slight man didn’t have that much to spare to begin with.
It wasn’t from willful mistreatment, he said. Food was scarce.
During his captivity, he did a lot of clean-up projects and work details in Munich. He was grateful, he said, that his guards weren’t the SS soldiers known for their cruelty.
“I was fortunate,” he said.
“We were hearing that the guys in the stalags up north were getting the SS guards. I wasn’t mistreated. I won’t say that I was.”
The old soldier closed his interview with a request:
“Don’t make me out to be a hero, OK? Because I’m not. A lot of men in a lot of places had it a heckuva lot worse than I ever did.”
Mathews died on June 4, 2018, two days before the 74th anniversary of D-Day.
The honor guard he was part of for so many years saluted him at his graveside, and when it was done, they all circled back to the place where everybody knew his name.