It’s November and, though we should be doing this all day every day, we set aside special moments during this month to honor those who have served and are serving in our military. I’d like to tell you a story this Veterans Day ~ a unique and inspirational tale I heard from one vet who was quite eager to tell it. It takes place during World War II, but it isn’t quite the war story you would expect. It’s the story of a woman, wife and mother who lived during a horrific reign of terror, how she survived it with her family and what she did in return once the war was over.
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Veterans Day at the Veterans’ Village
During a recent press trip to Branson, Missouri, we had the opportunity to spend a little time in a very special place called Veterans’ Village. This is a designated location in the Ballparks of America Complex where veterans visiting town can come to eat, gather information, meet others with similar stories and ultimately feel welcomed and respected ~ something many of them had to wait decades to experience. Various Branson vendors come and give of their time to offer services and share insightful tips to these forgotten heroes.
Several store fronts are utilized here. When I walked into one particular space, I met a man by the name of Donald. Donald briefly and humbly shared with me his “adventure” overseas. He served in Vietnam and, when he returned, he sadly felt the poisoned pangs of being unwelcomed. For decades, he told no one his stories. He kept everything locked inside. In fact, it wasn’t until he visited Branson, Missouri, that he actually felt the warm “welcome home” from his fellow Americans for the first time.
It honestly broke my heart into pieces to hear this.
Donald also shared that he had married a veteran, a young woman who just happened to be sitting at the table near the front of the space in which we were standing. When my conversation with Donald had ended, I debated whether or not to say hi to this young woman and thank her for her service. The debate was because I didn’t want to appear as if I was trying too hard, ultimately coming off superficial or rehearsed. Lord knows, as a retired military wife myself, I certainly appreciate the sacrifice she made and did not want to patronize her. Fortunately, when I approached her, she was quite personable, the words came out naturally and we began to a very enlightening conversation.
The young woman’s name was April and, when she saw that I was wearing a lanyard that referenced “blogging,” her interest in chatting piqued a little more. It was then that she said that, if I was interested, she had a story she would love for me to share.
Who was I to argue? I love a great story!
We found a little table off to the side and I pulled out my leather-bound Branson notebook and a pen. Boy, was I glad I came prepared for this!
Let me start, however, by telling you a little bit about the woman I was about to interview. April was born in Germany and is the daughter of a German-born mother and a US Army soldier. She immigrated to the States when she was just eight years old, already endowed with an appreciation and love for this country (the reason for this is forthcoming). April herself married a US Army soldier years later and then, out of the heartfelt gratitude, joined the US Air Force to give back on her own. She has been “fighting” for this country ever since in one way, shape, form or fashion.
But the story April wanted me to share isn’t about her. It’s about her grandmother, who just happened to live and suffer through some of the most treacherous years under the rule of a notorious dictator.
Let’s Travel Back in Time
April’s grandmother, Gertrude, was the wife of a German potato and pig farmer. April’s grandfather diligently worked the land to make sure he could provide for his family in Germany. When news arrived that Hitler was named chancellor, the family had a very troublesome decision to make ~ a decision no one should have to face. This was a decision that was essentially life or death ~ become a Nazi or suffer the consequences. The decision to “side” with the Nazi party was not as black and white as it would seem. Choosing otherwise, could have very well meant that you were placing the lives of your mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters ~ and MORE ~ in life-threatening danger. To “choose” otherwise would mean you could be responsible for taking away someone else’s heart and soul.
Can you imagine? I simply cannot. What a horrific position in which to be…
I beg of you…until you have had to make a decision like that, do not make a judgment call.
I’m going to stop there for just a moment.
When April was telling me this part of the story, the words she spoke penetrated my very soul. Too often, we look at history and make assumptions and judgement calls based on so little information. Heck – this happens in the present, as well. We never take the time to hear the whole story, understand the scenario or wrap our brains around what may have actually been going on at that point in time for that particular individual we are about to judge.
To make the decision they had to make sounds evil. It sounds horrific and unforgivable. However, when life or death is on the line, the decisions we make become complicated and involve details far too great for any one person outside the situation to understand.
Gertrude and her husband knew what THEY had to do. They chose to live, but never chose to serve.
Instead, Gertrude, on the day she heard that Hitler had become chancellor, did something very poetic and poignant. Here’s her story.
A Pristine Piece of Linen
It’s safe to assume the family wasn’t made of money. Like I said, they worked the land in order to survive and now they were trying to survive a war. On the day Hitler stepped into dictatorship, Gertrude took money they didn’t really have and purchased a pristine white sheet ~ a fine piece of linen. Something they would never have thought to buy. She wrapped it in oil cloth to preserve it and then placed it in her purse. She hid it there and refused to take it out until a very specific thing happened. What was she was waiting for? The Allies to step foot in Germany.
At the time, April’s mother, whose name was also Gertrude, was seven years old. It wasn’t until she was well into her teen years that the momentous and miraculous day arrived. When April’s grandmother heard the news that the Americans had marched into Germany, she was ecstatic! She ran to get her purse, took out the pristine linen that had been wrapped up in the oil cloth and ran to the window.
She thrust the linen forward and began to wave it like she was waving a flag of victory. In fact, she was so exuberant that her family was concerned that she was going to fall out the window! They desperately held on to her to keep her safe.
She wasn’t done giving
You would think that was quite the demonstration of appreciation and gratitude right there, but Gertrude wasn’t done. She wasn’t happy until she was able to give something back to the United States. Within time, she introduced her two beautiful daughters to two American soldiers. She watched them bond and ultimately get married.
April’s facial expression while telling me this part of the story captivated me. She said that her grandmother felt that this was the greatest thank you gift she could have given back to America ~ her two daughters.
Renata and Gertrude did marry American soldiers and the younger Gertrude gave birth to April while they were still living in Germany. As noted above, when April was eight years old, the family came to the states. Of course, in time, April herself became a US citizen. She has always known her grandmother’s story about that pristine piece of linen and the tremendous depth of gratitude her grandmother felt for the Americans. However, that wasn’t even enough for April. She, too, felt she wanted to give something back to the country that brought her family freedom.
After marrying a US soldier herself in 1975, April felt a desire to serve her country in the armed forces, as well. She dedicated a period of her life to the US Air Force (1978-1988). Now, she stands proud as a veteran alongside her husband. In speaking with her, I could not ignore the undeniable passion she has for this country ~ it’s incomparable, immeasurable and inspiring. She is a woman who holds nothing back and tells it like it is. She has spunk, charisma, fight and desire ~ something that attracted my attention effortlessly.
No doubt, I’m honored that she shared her personal story with me. It’s a story that proves we cannot judge a book by its cover, nor by the first few pages. She shared with me a story that demonstrates survival, persistence, dedication, gratitude and sacrifice. No ~ this wasn’t MY experience, nor my family’s experience ~ which is what we normally share here. However, I am all about leaving footprints for others to follow. April’s grandmother’s story left a footprint for HER to follow and perhaps it will lead you in some way.
April said to me, “I could not have begged, borrowed or stolen a better life.”
Oh, how much we take for granted. Let’s appreciate the footprints left behind for us. It is in those steps that we find stories that are meant to encourage, motivate, inspire and educate.
To all those who have served and are serving in our US military, we THANK YOU for your service…..and welcome home.
For more information on the Branson Veterans’ Task Force (including reunions, special events and more), please do note hesitate to click here.
Read also this great post from my friend, Lisa, about saying more than thank you this Veterans Day!
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