An American hero died last week. He was one of the 1,200 such heroes this nation is losing almost daily and while you might not realize the service he and his brothers-in-arms performed for this country some 70 years ago, we truly owe them all a debt.
His name was Elmer Leach and he was a veteran of World War II. I had the honor of meeting and interviewing Elmer last year when he and some 36 other vets joined together for what will probably be the last hoorah for them — a trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II memorial.
I interviewed Elmer, then 92, at his home in Davison. He wasn’t in the best of health, but he was clearly excited to be making the trip with his fellow veterans to visit the memorial. For Elmer it was more about the desire to see some of his former soldiers who he’d served with in Saipan and Okinawa.
It was unlikely he would have a chance encounter with one of the men he’d served with so long ago, but Elmer didn’t seem to care. While I was along for the trip to Washington, D.C., last year, I watched him treat nearly every fellow veteran he met like an old friend he’d served with in the war.
“Hey buddy!” he greeted everyone, giving them handshakes and slaps to the shoulder. He also was clearly overjoyed at the reception the former soldiers received at the airport when we arrived in Baltimore that day, and the response they received throughout the day while we were at the memorial. People gave Elmer and the other veterans the thanks they deserved for what is possibly the most significant contribution to this country in its entire history – winning the war and maintaining the freedom we all enjoy today.
I went to the funeral home and said goodbye to Elmer last week. It was not a sad moment for his family because they all agreed Elmer had lived a long and happy life. They celebrated his life and the numerous photos of him dancing, clowning around and spending time with his children and step-children were a testament to the mark he left behind on those who knew him.
Looking back on the trip to Washington, D.C., last year and the interviews the staff of the paper and I did with the veterans who went continues to be one of the most rewarding things I have done in my career. I’m proud to have told the stories of Elmer and so many of the other 36 who took that journey to the nation’s capital.
I feel I was very fortunate to have gone and shared in what was a special moment for men like Elmer who made personal sacrifices and suffered through hard times so my children and I could be free. Again I thank Elmer Leach and every man and woman who served in World War II for what they did for this nation. You were truly the Greatest Generation and from the bottom of my heart, I thank you.