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He was a 17-old-boy who knew he was not cut out to be a scholar, a coalminer or a farmer. And so he did the only other thing he could think of: he lied about his age and joined the Army.
By November 1950, he was on the shores of the Chosin Reservoir in Korea and on Dec. 1-2 he was shot twice, bayoneted 16 times by the Chinese and left for dead on the frozen tundra.
Back home his parents received a telegram that read, in part, “Your son was slightly wounded.”
Semi-illiterate, all they knew to do was pray.
Three weeks went by and finally the word came: their critically injured son, now 19, was on his way stateside.
Accompanied by Army personnel, they traveled to the Army hospital 350 miles away where they received the best Christmas present of their lives–a living, breathing son–frostbitten and an amputee, but nonetheless alive.
The boy–their son–was my father, PFC Russell Roberts and what happened during that raging 17-day battle thousands of miles from his Kentucky mountain home changed him–and me–forever.
Once his wounds had mended–despite a bullet still lodged in his chest and the loss of four fingers and partial amputation of his toes–he was sent to Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. where he served the remainder of his hitch dismantling bombs to determine why they never exploded.
After the Army, he returned home, married my mother and began life as a disabled American veteran while earning a living doing carpentry.
His joints ached, he was never warm and each and every day he relived the war. He talked about lying on the ground in 30-degrees below zero temperatures. He visualized the Reservoir and described it as a “body of water red with the blood of the Chinese.” He recalled grasping a truck chassis and hanging on for dear life until he was safe, rescued by the Marines.
He never forgot. He never wanted to.
A medical disability, brought on by his service-connected injuries, forced him into retirement. But it wasn’t a retirement.
For the next 15 years, he devoted himself to veterans. He founded a DAV chapter, organized several others, commanded the most active burial detail in Eastern Kentucky, helped vets file claims benefits and drove others to the VA hospitals.
At night when his legs hurt so badly, I could see the glistening in his eyes, I would ask, “Do you regret it, Daddy? Do you regret joining the Army?”
And the answer was always the same. “No. I would do it all again.”
We didn’t know it at the time, but watching our father’s devotion to his country made my brothers and me into the patriots we are today–the kind who gets teary-eyed when a color guard passes in a parade or sings loudly every time the national anthem is played.
This weekend, Americans everywhere will celebrate Memorial Day. For most it’s a time of picnics, getaways or working around the house. For others, it’s a time to pause and remember the men and women who served our country; to reflect on lives lost for the sake of freedom.
On Sunday, May 24 at Orange Hill Cemetery, American Legion Post 236 of Levy County and VFW Post 5511 will pay tribute to their comrades who have gone on before them.
Korean War veterans will be the guest honorees.
I will be there. Not just as a journalist covering an event, but as a daughter who is so fiercely proud of her father it makes me tremble.
Memorial Day is his day. I want to respect and remember him and hundreds of thousands like him who offered themselves up so I could have a better life.
I hope I see you there.
Carolyn Risner is editor of the Willliston Pioneer. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 528-3343.