Donald was not quite 75 years old. He coughed frequently.
Every cough started deep within his frail body and erupted in an uncontrollable rattle that shook his thin frame. Audible congestion could be heard deep within his lungs. Areas of aged skin were pockmarked with, what looked like, old burn scars. For his entire lifetime, shortness of breath had haunted his waking and sleeping hours.
He died in 1972. His medical history and death certificate stated that he had died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
In reality, he was a victim of war. It was a war that had several names — The War to End all Wars, The Great War and World War I.
Donald had been a doughboy, part of the American Expeditionary Force. He was assigned to fight on the western front of WWI.
Improvements in artillery shells and machine gun fire necessitated a new kind of defense. The soldiers could not fight in the open because of the artillery shrapnel and the endless number of bullets that were fired into the open spaces.
The new defense that worked best was fighting from deep trenches. Trench warfare was used by both sides during WWI, but soon Germany developed an offense that made any trench a death trap.
Like the other doughboys, Donald was in a trench waiting for the next opportunity to go on the offense and charge the enemy trenches or for the enemy to charge their defenses. It was during one of these lulls in the fighting that the cry, “Gas! Gas! Gas!” was shouted up and down their entrenched position.
Mustard gas was fired into the battlefield using artillery shells. Mustard gas was heavier than air and would settle into foxholes and trenches.
One way to escape the blistering death that came from mustard gas was to abandon the trench and risk artillery and machine gun fire. Fumbling to put on a gas mask that didn’t always work. Most doughboys tried running along the trench in search of an area clear of the yellowish-brown gas.
Donald heard the warning shouts. He turned to see the heavier-than-air gas rolling toward him and his friends. Before he could get his gas mask in place, he inhaled some of the toxic gas. Nearly blinded, he scrambled away from the gas.
Doughboys pushed each other, fell and were stepped on, arose and ran. Some climbed from the trench and were shot. Somehow, Donald survived.
He was temporarily blinded. His skin was blistered, his lungs nearly destroyed.
When they were evacuated from the battlefield, it was not unusual to see long lines of men with their hands on each other’s shoulders, being led from the battlefield in single file, many of them blinded by mustard gas. That’s how Donald was led from the western front of World War I.
Over 50,000 Americans died during World War I. Donald did not die immediately of the wounds he received during the war. Instead, he died 55 years later.
We observed Memorial Day Monday as a way of honoring those Americans who died in the many wars our nation has fought. Just as many of Donald’s friends died in Europe fighting in WWI, so too did Donald die in defense of our nation.
Many young soldiers who were exposed to Agent Orange in the jungles of Vietnam are still suffering and dying from cancer that started with their exposure to that deadly defoliant.
Many young warriors are still returning home from war to families and friends who just cannot understand the horrors they experienced.
Sometimes, their emotional and psychological scars do not heal. In desperation, they turn to alcohol or drugs. Some turn to suicide. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is real. The suicide rate for veterans suffering from PTSD is more than double the general population.
Every day veterans are dying from the wounds they received in war. Some of the wounds are fresh; some of the wounds are decades old.
We must honor our veterans and provide them with help whenever and wherever we can. Many of them paid the ultimate price in defense of our country. Many still suffer the aftermath of war.
We must honor them every day. We must honor and help them – whatever the cost.
Randy Riley is President of Council of Wilmington.