Many of us consider Veteran’s Day, which occurs every year on November 11, a sort of mini-holiday. Yes, parades pop up all around the place, public schools are closed, and those of us who work for the government often have the day off. But of course, the purpose of the day is to honor those who have served in the US armed forces. We hear about some of the issues that local veterans face, including difficulty in getting medical claims processed. In September, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill proposed by Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney to allow veterans to have their medical examinations done by physicians outside the VA system to help process their disability claims faster. This is, of course, just one of the issues that veterans have to cope with. Here, three local veterans — who served in four different wars, including World War II — share some of their stories.
John Byron of Millbrook is having a big year. He’s turning 90 this month; he’s engaged to be married (for the second time), and, in September, he drove to Maine for a reunion of the sailors who served with him onboard the USS Turner in 1945.
Byron was 17 and still in high school in Queens when he enlisted; in fact, he had to have his father’s permission to join the Navy. “Everybody else in my neighborhood had already gone to the war. I was one of the only boys left in my school,” he says. Byron was assigned to the Turner, a Gearing-class destroyer.
The Turner was commissioned on June 12, 1945, he says, and the European war was over before his ship was ready. “So we went down through the Panama Canal and started across the Pacific, where the ship was caught in a typhoon,” he recalls. That’s when he had the most memorable moment of his military career.
“I was standing in the wheelhouse, not holding the wheel, just standing there, when the ship took a 37-degree roll and I was swept across the deck and almost overboard. The ship took a 180-degree turn.” When Byron scrambled to his feet, other sailors were “screaming at me and I was never allowed to stand in the wheelhouse again.”
After his enlistment was up, Byron remained in the Navy reserves; he was called back to duty for 18 months in 1951 and 1952 during the Korean War. He was stationed in Charleston, South Carolina, but didn’t see any action during that war, either. “With the Vietnam War everything became very political, but before that veterans were treated very well.”
Byron was born in New York City; nine decades later, you can still hear his New York accent. After leaving the Navy, he served as a New York City policeman, and retired after 30 years as a detective sergeant.
He currently lives by himself, about 10 miles away from his son Keith and three grandchildren. He’s recognized around Millbrook by his license plate, “Sgt. No.” This comes from his career as a cop, during which he oversaw the detective division. Legend has it he turned down so many expenditure requests that he become known in the police force as “Sergeant No.”
Byron enjoys the annual reunions with his USS Turner buddies, noting that they often meet near a naval base. “This year, there were about 37 sailors and then their wives and families; about 80 people in all,” he says. Byron was also excited to see the newest naval destroyer, which is being built in Bath, Maine. “It’s named the Zumwalt. It’s huge! It’s about 600 feet long,” he says.
Joe Murphy’s baseball cap says a lot about where he’s been. It doesn’t advertise his loyalty to the Yankees or to his alma mater, but reads “Desert Storm.” On a late-summer Saturday morning, he was actively grabbing the elbows of pedestrians on Millbrook’s Franklin Avenue; he wanted them to know about a government policy that he thinks is short-sighted and puts veterans like himself in peril.
Murphy served in the Navy from 1975 to 1980; he was called back to duty in 1990 to serve in “Desert Storm,” the code name for the 1990-91 Gulf War against Iraq.
“There are thousands of Gulf War veterans suffering from various illnesses like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. Although the government doesn’t like the term, it’s called “Gulf War Syndrome” and theories are that it results from the vaccinations troops were given, supposedly as an antidote to poison gas, or from the heavy fog of polluted air in their lungs.”
But, says Murphy, the Veteran’s Administration now says that it won’t honor claims unless the symptoms show up by December 2016. “But symptoms sometimes don’t show up until you get older,” he observes. “What about the guy who was 19 when he was in the Gulf and he’ll only be 40 next year?”
Murphy says that his most memorable moment from the Gulf War happened when he was 10 miles off the coast of Kuwait. “I could see and smell acrid smoke from burning oil fields. The sky was so black with fumes that you could not see the sun.”
Murphy remains healthy. “I’m 61 and I’m not even on any medications. I consider myself very lucky,” he says, adding that his Navy career has made him emotionally and financially stronger than if he’d been a civilian all his life. After retiring as a Navy captain at age 51, he returned to college and today works as a pharmacist for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. He lives with his wife, Rita, and their four children near Millbrook.
Murphy says the sacrifices he made were worth it. It’s also why he is so active with his local VFW post. “We served. We served with honor. We never deserted our comrades. We always stood our post, or, as we say in the Navy, stood the watch. My goal is to make sure that the government doesn’t desert my comrades in arms with arbitrary deadlines and policies.”
David Sanchez of Kerhonkson currently wears two sets of sergeant’s stripes. The first one is because he is an officer for the New York State Corrections Department; the second indicates that he is a First Sergeant (1SG) in the National Guard Reserves. But not for long. After 26 years of service, Sanchez has just signed his military retirement papers.
Sanchez has had a lot of life-changing experiences in the past quarter-century. Back in 2008, he served for one year in Kabul. “I didn’t know if I’d ever see home again. We lost 17 guys with our deployment.”
And when he did arrive back on his home turf, Sanchez recalls, “I didn’t feel like I fit in. I just wanted to be back over there again. People who haven’t been there don’t understand how spending months in a hostile place and seeing your buddies killed changes you.”
Perhaps that’s why the “friends” on Sanchez’s Facebook page generally aren’t high school buddies. Instead, his photos feature Sanchez and his Afghan buddies in combat gear. The bond he built with those friends in Kabul, he says, will last forever.
Sanchez spent much of his time training recruits in the Afghan army. “It was really hard to train them because the typical recruit had no education,” he recalls. “And the pay, even by Afghan standards, was minimal.” Still, Sanchez says that Kabul was probably not his most hazardous duty post. That distinction goes to the five days he spent at Ground Zero when his outfit was mobilized after the 9/11 terror attacks.
“They gave us one paper filter to put over our mouths and noses,” he says. “Three times, I had to go to the medics for nebulizer treatment because I had difficulty breathing after being there.” Sanchez is still living with these health issues. “I have asthma and COPD. I make the best of it.”
Sanchez worries that the public has been lulled to sleep about the need for a strong military presence. “They are talking about an RIF (Reduction in Forces) back to pre-World War II levels” he says. “America can’t be a world power with weak armed forces.” Still, Sanchez remains positive. “People are really good with soldiers nowadays when they come home from deployment. I am still thanked for my services, even by strangers.”