Veterans Day: Three soldiers share their memories

jwarren@herald-leader.comNovember 10, 2013 

Navy veteran David Downey, 87, visited the Bourbon County Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Paris on Friday. Downey served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam; his name, along with all Bourbon County veterans who served in Vietnam, is on the monument.

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    If you are a combat veteran in need of mental health treatment or know of a one, contact Capt. Stephanie Fields at stephanie.k.fields.mil@ mail.mil   or (502) 607-1046. Troops who want to make confidential appointments should call the University of Louisville’s Eric Russ at (502) 813-6631. For Kentucky National Guard veteran referrals and appointments, contact Billie Jacobs, billie.jacobs.mil@mail.mil   or (502) 607-2066. not also directly involve the National Guard, she said.

Gartrell Day helped liberate Europe; David Downey was a sailor when the Navy treated blacks as second-class citizens; a freak accident kept April Parkeson from fighting for her country, but now she plans to help those who do.

Each of these veterans served in a different way, their experiences spread across 60 years of history.

And yet together, their stories typify the selfless spirit that Americans will be celebrating Monday with parades and ceremonies marking Veterans Day.

Many memories, no regrets

Downey, 87, of Paris was drafted into the Navy in 1944 and put to work loading 55-gallon oil drums in Hawaii.

"Back then, black dudes in the Navy basically were stevedores," Downey said. "The only thing you could be was a stevedore or a cook. They wouldn't let you be anything else."

Downey eventually became a cook. He spent 21 years preparing meals on land and sea in two separate stints in the Navy, serving in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

He cooked on a ship that ferried troops to and from Korea. Later, he served on the destroyer USS McDermut, and played on the ship's basketball team. In Vietnam, one of the people he cooked for was a young naval supply officer named Roger Staubach, later quarterback for the NFL's Dallas Cowboys.

"I've done a little bit of everything," Downey said. "The ironic thing is, I actually enjoyed all of it. Sometimes things went south, but I never let it bother me."

There was, for example, the white naval officer who had Downey tossed into the brig when Downey tried to re-enlist in 1946. Even today, Downey doesn't know why.

The Navy never offered him a chance for a combat assignment, he said.

"They did not like black people in combat then," he said. "They didn't want them to be electricians or postal clerks or anything like that."

So Downey remained a cook, and he liked it.

One of his favorite stories involves Staubach, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1963 playing football for the U.S. Naval Academy. Staubach was on active duty in Vietnam when Downey met him a few years later, right after Army had whipped Navy in their annual football game. Downey asked Staubach why Navy lost.

"He said, 'If I had been there, it would have been different,'" Downey recalled.

Downey had various jobs after retiring from the Navy in 1968. Nowadays, he relaxes by trading memories with his friend Albert Wess of Paris, who was a member of the famous Red Ball express during World War II. Downey says he's proud of his service, despite the occasional tough times.

"I have no regrets; I enjoyed the service," he said. "People tell me I should write a book about it."

Doing his job right

Gartrell Day was a country boy from Carter County when the Army drafted him in 1943. He became a machine gunner with the 131st AAA Gun Battalion, arriving overseas just in time for the D-day invasion in June 1944.

"When I got to the beach, all I had left was my weapon and a can of pork and beans," Day said.

In Holland, German troops broke through defensive lines and attacked Day's outfit. He remembers it as his worst moment of the war.

"We were dug in in an orchard. I'll never forget it," he said.

Day fired so many rounds from his machine gun that he badly burned his hand on the blazing hot barrel. But battlefield medical attention was sparse.

"When I got my hand burned, the medics came by one time and dressed it," he said. "That's the last time I ever saw them."

Day's outfit moved into Germany, where it helped liberate Dachau, the infamous Nazi concentration camp. Day confiscated a dagger from a captured German officer, and he still has it.

"Dachau was right outside Munich, and we saw some terrible things there," Day said. "There was a train that had pulled some cattle cars onto a siding. Those cars were full of Polish and Jewish people.

"I can still see the little kids that were in those cars. They wouldn't say a word to us. They just stared into space."

After the fighting ended, Day visited the "Eagle's Nest," Adolf Hitler's famous hideaway in the Bavarian Alps. It was all quite an experience for a kid who, as Day puts it, "had never been anywhere before the war."

Day returned home in 1946, eventually moving to Mason County, where he now lives. He drove a truck until retirement.

At 90, he still remembers his Army serial number — 3576900 — and he has the dog tags he wore fighting across Europe.

"I guess I was in five or six countries," Day said. "The Lord was really good to me to see that I got home all right. But I didn't play around. I tried to pay attention and do my job right. I guess that's one reason I made it."

Determined to serve

April Parkeson, 28, of Campbellsville wanted to join the Air Force, just like her dad. But poor vision kept her from qualifying.

Parkeson, however, was determined to serve. So she joined the Army Reserve in 2005.

Soon afterward, her transportation company was called to active duty, with orders for Afghanistan. Parkeson was ready, but things didn't work out as she had hoped.

"We were training at Camp Atterbury, Ind.," she said. "We made a road march one day, and I fell on some ice and tore up my right shoulder.

"Three days before we were to ship out, they told me I couldn't go because I had not had an MRI on my shoulder."

Officers in Parkeson's outfit made pleas, but the Army stood firm. Parkeson couldn't go.

"After training with my battle buddies all those months, it was tough," she said. "And after they were gone, I just broke down. It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do."

Some of Parkeson's civilian friends told her she was lucky to be staying home. But they didn't understand, she said.

"Being a soldier, I wasn't going to fight for my country, the way I was supposed to," she said. "I didn't get to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish."

The Army's decision, however, probably was correct.

Parkeson's shoulder hasn't recovered, even after two surgeries. A third operation is scheduled soon.

But Parkeson is determined to serve. She left the Army in 2008 and recently completed a master's degree in social work. Now, she plans a career helping veterans.

"I've seen how so many soldiers struggle with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury," she said. "It just seems like there are not enough people in the field who are focusing on those problems.

"Having been a soldier myself, I think I could bring a different perspective. In a way, I've been through the same thing myself."

Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.

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