This Memorial Day is personal for me. As always, I will mourn those who died in battle, but this year I will mourn more particularly those of my comrades from the Korean War who have died of the coronavirus. Bill O’Reilly was correct when he told Sean Hannity on Fox News: “Many people who are dying, both here and around the world, were on their last legs anyway, and I don’t want to sound callous about that. I mean ... they were damaged.”
All of the elderly veterans at veterans homes are “damaged.” O’Reilly is correct: Many of the veteran deaths during the pandemic were caused by comorbidities — that is, they were damaged before they contracted the virus, some by the wounds of war. I was not in Korea during the “Home-by-Christmas” Chosin Reservoir disaster in 1950, but I did serve with survivors of that battle where our forces were overwhelmed by the invading Chinese. Some 37,000 Americans died in Korea. Many of the nearly 100,000 wounded were not injured by bullets, but by the subzero cold during battles in the barren North Korean wilderness. They died in nursing homes after suffering amputations, infections, skin cancer and other afflictions — those who survived are close to my age of 90 years.
Tragically, it was more than being old and having a compromised immune system that recently killed many of these veterans. Because of the acute shortage of test kits, veteran homes and other old age facilities were forced to wait until residents were showing symptoms of COVID-19 before they could be tested and isolated from others — even if was known that they had contact with people who were infected. The health care workers had to be certain that the patient’s symptoms were not those of pneumonia. By the time the test results were received, many of those old veterans had died.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, told the VA inspector general that he knew about the coronavirus in January; however, as late as March the inspector general reported that more than half the VA facilities did not have enough masks and gloves for workers and health care providers. Test kits, which we were told were “plentiful” were practically nonexistent. I am told that we now have sufficient face masks — we Korean War veterans can take some credit for that. This month, the South Korean Ministry of Patriots and Veteran Affairs sent 2 million surgical masks to the United States noting: “Veterans [of the Korean War] have a special relationship with [South Korea]. We cannot but give them the highest priority.” Unfortunately, that special relationship and highest priority did not extend to the secretary of veterans affairs.
My generation was described by Time magazine as the Silent Generation: “unimaginative, withdrawn, unadventurous, and cautious.” We were born during the Depression and raised during times of economic uncertainty. Watching our parents climb out of the Depression we developed a strong work ethic. The impact and sacrifices of World War II shaped our growing up years and nurtured a fierce patriotism. Because the Korean War was sandwiched between World War II and the Vietnam War, it has been called The Forgotten War. A forgotten war fought by the silent generation.
Today I think of those Korean War veterans with whom I served — the ones whose deaths were hastened by the coronavirus — the ones who died within the last month without the presence of their loved ones and without the military honors that they deserved.
Sol Wachtler, a former chief judge of New York State who was an Army sergeant during the Korean War, is a distinguished adjunct professor at Touro Law School.