Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day Reflection

Below is a Memorial Day tribute to a veteran whose eye was blown out in the Battle of the Bulge.

Omaha World-Herald, May 31, 1999

Quiet Hero's Devotion: Faith, Family, Country

By Chip Maxwell.

"I was hit by shrapnel in the forehead," wrote John Patrick Byrne in a letter to his family, half a world away, 54 years ago. The 18-year-old from Mitchell, S.D., had been wounded in the Battle of the Bulge.

"There is a wound which has been closed and from which there will be no aftereffects," he said. "All the scars will be taken care of with plastic surgery."

Young John cushioned his audience with that hopeful prognosis before getting around to the fact that his right eye was gone.

"In my first letter I told all I knew about my head but did not mention my eye because I didn't want to worry you. But since you know about the eye you've got to believe me when I say that it doesn't handicap me in the least. I can see almost as far to the right as ever and I can notice my range of vision widening daily.... I have never lost hope or become gloomy and disheartened ... and I know you will and can take it in the same way."

The truth is that after more than 20 surgical procedures, including the insertion of a metal plate in his skull and a glass eye in the reconstructed socket, it was evident that the man had sustained what could have been a life-shattering injury. But you wouldn't have known it from the vitality with which John Byrne, my uncle, lived until his death in March.

Uncle John used the GI Bill to go to college and medical school at Creighton. He married Emmy McDermott of Omaha in 1953. They would have celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary in June.

My cousin Tom Byrne, who followed in his father's footsteps and became a doctor, noted in his eulogy that Uncle John spent his medical career -- more than four decades in Anamosa, Iowa, Omaha and Phoenix -- practicing in VA hospitals. Private practice would have paid better, Tom said, especially for a father with eight children, "but he truly believed in the mission of the VA. After all, when he was wounded, he wasn't left for dead on the battlefield. Somebody picked him up and gave him a chance."

Uncle John made it his life's work to do the same for other veterans.

"Before you think I'm trying to canonize him," Tom hastened to add, "he did have his weaknesses. He was not what you would call politically correct." Readers who knew John Byrne are no doubt roaring at that colossal understatement.

"He despised exercise in all its forms," Tom continued. "He loved all the wrong foods. He loved smoking, his martini pitcher and good scotch -- or, if that's all that was available, bad scotch. In other words, he was Irish."

Tom observed that his father frequently quoted poets like Whitman, Joyce or Yeats -- "never in a boastful way, but just if family or close friends were there."

Most of all I remember Uncle John's legendary sense of humor. He had a gift for distilling, in hilarious detail, the absurdity in everyday life. Lucky families have such characters.

Uncle John would hold court at family gatherings, but not because he was pushy. People would feed him names or the beginnings of stories, then sit back and enjoy as John rendered the tale in his deliberate manner that reminded me of W.C. Fields. Even if you had heard the story before, it was like hearing an experienced crooner handle a classic song, a fine actor recite a favorite Shakespeare passage, or any good artist working in his natural medium.

The fake eye itself was grist for the mill -- such as the time a woman bumped Uncle John and sent him sprawling into a circular airport luggage carousel. A state-of-the-art spare eye John had in his pocket got loose and careened around the carousel like a marble in a roulette wheel. He and the wayward prosthesis were retrieved without harm to either. Family lore has it that the woman has been in therapy ever since.

My cousin Tom said his father was fueled by tremendous devotion to his Catholic faith, his family, and his country. Some people might dismiss that as hackneyed rhetoric, but in Uncle John's case, there was a lifetime of evidence to back it up.

He refused to wallow in self-pity. To my knowledge he never talked about his war wound unless asked about it, and then disposed of the topic in short order. He charged ahead in life, took it in big strides and relished every aspect of it -- even the bad scotch and the occasional runaway eyeball.

My thoughts are with John Patrick Byrne this Memorial Day, a son of the Midlands who lived life to the full while tenaciously serving his country and her veterans.

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