Last week my family gathered at our farm in Ohio to celebrate my dad's 85th birthday. There were 20 of us altogether—a real tribute to Dad. We came from Indiana, Arizona, Maryland, and Virginia to celebrate his big milestone.
While we were together, I asked a few of the children in our family what they knew about their grandpa. "He's like a mentor to me," said my 13-year-old nephew, Dylan. They could tell me about him—who he is, how he interacts with them, and that sort of thing. But when I asked what they knew about his military service, they said they really didn't know much. "He's a World War II veteran, but he doesn't talk much about that," was their answer.
When I was growing up, Dad didn't talk much about his military service during World War II and the Korean Conflict. He wore his army jacket when he was outside working in the yard, and there were always some of those old scratchy green army blankets around the house. There was also a mysterious green footlocker in our garage, but it was locked and I wasn't sure what was in it. There were friends from the army days, families we would visit. And occasionally a funny story about the adventures he and his buddies had after the war was over and things were a bit more relaxed. But that was about all we knew. It wasn't until I got older and started asking questions that I began to learn more about Robert Goyer: war veteran, as opposed to Bob Goyer: Dad, Uncle, Grandpa.
Last summer, my sister, Susie, and our parents and I went to a reunion of Dad's Army Division, the 10th Mountain Division, in Denver. It was truly amazing to learn more about what that division accomplished toward the end of WW II and about Dad's role in it; I wish the children in our family had been there.
The 10th was a division of elite troops with specialized operational skills adapted to fighting in rugged mountain terrain. These guys scaled the mountains of the Italian Alps during the night and surprised the Germans at the mountaintops where they had been untouchable for many months. No one could dislodge them, until the 10th showed up. The troops of the 10th could fight while climbing and skiing with 90-pound rucksacks on their backs (I tried one on at the reunion and could barely walk!). They used donkeys to carry supplies. Things didn't always go as planned, and they ended up in Italy with quite a bit of their equipment back home in the states. But they kept going through the Po Valley and across Lake Garda. They pushed the Germans out, leading to the Nazi surrender in Italy, followed shortly by Victory in Europe day.
These guys, including Dad, are real heroes. They accomplished the impossible. And there at the reunion were these men in their 80s and 90s all lit up as they sang their old Army songs (maybe it was good the children weren't there to hear some of those!) and reminisced. They looked like a bunch of 20-year-olds getting together for beers. They held their old Carbine weapons and checked out the M29C troop carrier nicknamed a "Weasel"—one of the first snowmobiles.
We visited the monument at Tennessee Pass, Colo., which memorializes the 1,000 boys of the 10th Mountain Division who lost their lives in those mountains of Italy. The veterans caught up on families and health and happenings. Several of the veterans of the 10th had gone on to help build the ski industry in the United States after the war, a contribution that is honored with a statue of a 10th soldier in snow camouflage on skis, which we saw in Vail. All of these men seemed to have parlayed their service experiences into a love for the great outdoors, and their families have greatly benefited from that.