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Newspaper work has given the opportunity to meet some amazing people. I've met daredevils who hike or bike -- even rode horses -- ridiculous distances. I've met volunteers who think nothing of contributing huge chunks of their time to thankless, but necessary tasks. I've met people who have been hurt or sick and still manage to do more with their lives than any five people like me. I've met a couple of dozen World War II veterans who have given me a glimpse of a very special kind of honor.

I was unexpectedly touched when I read about the passing of Forrest Strickler. I can't say I knew him well and it would be silly to say it was a surprise -- the man was 97 years old, but to me, he was a symbol of many other veterans. I took his picture at the Bella Vista Cemetery in December 2016 laying a wreath on the grave of a veteran. It was a cold morning and I knew that the man I saw through my viewfinder was well over 90, but he was out there all by himself that morning.

I had already taken his photo as a member of the Honor Guard, actually, he was the commander for a long time. The Honor Guard traveled all over the region for military funerals, but I saw them at Memorial Day observances. Their 21 gun salute has startled me more than once.

I interviewed Strickler in 2017 when he returned home from a trip to Europe, where he visited the sites where he had fought as a young man. He told me about the Battle of Bulge and this is how I wrote it in 2017: "The battle took place in the winter of 1944-45. It was a cold winter, Strickler remembers. He told his men to sleep with their spare socks under their arms so they would have dry socks to put on in the morning. When they changed their socks, he told them to look for black toes. If one of their toes was black, they were immediately sent to the medics ... Stickler told his men to watch for enemy soldiers inside their camp. There was no food on the German side, so German soldiers would find American uniforms and sneak into the mess tents. You could tell by the way they held their knife and fork or their cigarettes, which soldiers weren't Americans."

After the battle, he was reassigned and ended up with General Dwight D. Eisenhower during the talks at Potsdam when the allied leaders decided how to divide defeated Germany.

Like many of the World War II veterans I've met, Strickler had a career and a marriage when he returned to the states and became more active in veterans organizations as he got older. He lived in Bella Vista for 30 years and was a member of both the VFW Post and the American Legion Post.

Strickler was one of many World War II veterans I've interviewed in recent years. Every single time I meet a man who served in World War II, I think of my father.

My father was a veteran, too, who died very young, long before he had the chance to retire and become active in a veteran's group. I don't remember him ever talking about the war. Not once, but, of course, I was just a kid when he died. Years after his death, my mother told me he had been looking forward to a reunion of his Army unit, but he didn't live to see it.

It's hard for me to imagine a society where so many young men were willing to put their lives on the line for their country. It was actually a different veteran who gave me a simple explanation that rang true: Clifton Stolpe was one of five brothers who all served in World War II.

"We lived in a small town," he explained. "Every boy in the area was in the service." In fact, his uncle was head of the local draft board and signed them all up when it was time. All five brothers survived the war and returned to Iowa. Clifton Stolpe died in December 2018.

Then there was Andy Anderson who returned to the beach at Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014 at 90 years old. Long after the war, he met and became friends with a German soldier who had also been part of the battle.

"I was doing what I was told. He was doing what he was told," Anderson said about his former foe. "We were kids fighting kids."

Anderson died in May 2018.

Just last month, I got to meet K.B. Smith and his wife Sue after they returned from the 75th-anniversary event for D-Day. Smith had needed his parents' permission to enlist at age 17 and he spent D-Day on a ship firing at the cliffs overlooking Omaha Beach.

It's been an honor to meet these veterans and many others who, matter-of-factly, saved the world from fascism when they were very young. They truly deserve the title of "The Greatest Generation."

• • •

Lynn Atkins is a Weekly Vista reporter, an occasional columnist and a sporadic blogger. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

General News on 07/10/2019

Print Headline: Touched at the passing of Forrest Strickler

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