Commentary: Meeting an American hero

  • Published
  • By Col. Bruce Bowers
  • 446th Airlift Wing Commander
America's Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines are heroes. Quiet heroes who go about their lives with little fanfare. Yet, if we pay attention, we will find ourselves in the company of these quiet heroes and have an opportunity to say thank you.

I had one such opportunity not too long ago. A couple months ago Kim (my wife) was out of town. I had come home and after changing out of my uniform decided to go out for dinner. I somehow ended up on Martin Way in Lacey, Wash., and spotted a relatively small, nondescript restaurant and bar--The Cedar Inn. As I went inside, several patrons were seated around the bar.

I sat down at the closest stool and asked the bartender what he recommended. He stated the burgers were very good and so I ordered one.

While sitting there I noticed an elderly gentlemen sitting next to me wearing a black baseball-style hat with the word Veteran embroidered on the brim. I asked him which branch he'd served in and when.

He immediately sat up and proudly began telling me he'd been a Soldier. He'd served with the 30 Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division during World War II. He told me he'd been a machine gunner and had seen quite a bit of action. I subsequently asked him where he'd served, what campaigns, and when he had been discharged. He was more than happy to share several stories with me. I told him while I was currently in the Air Force, my dad was also Army and that I felt a special kinship with Soldiers as well as Airmen.

Finally my hamburger came. The conversation quickly dropped off as I began enjoying dinner when he finally tapped me on the shoulder. He had pulled a business card out of his wallet. He handed it to me showing the back with several additional campaigns (and dates of those battles), Anzio, Italy, France, Morroco. I then flipped the card over and on the front was his name, "MSgt Wilburn K. Ross" and below it were the words "Medal of Honor Recipient." Needless to say I stopped eating.

I asked him was he Wilburn Ross? He assured me he was and then pulled a picture out of his wallet showing him meeting President Kennedy. By this time my interest was no longer on dinner!

As I was looking at the picture, I asked if President Kennedy was the one giving him the medal. He immediately stated no and said President Truman had issued it to him. He then continued to tell me he'd been born in Kentucky, not far from where Sgt. York was born. He then went on to tell me about the time when he met Sgt York and Audie Murphy and several other true American Heroes. I was shell-shocked.

He subsequently shared with me how he'd won the Medal of Honor. There was no bravado in his voice and I even thought I saw a little sadness when he described the action.

Not long afterwards he decided to head home and we said our goodbyes. As he left I wondered how many other non-descript American veterans (silent heroes) I'd met and never knew about their feats of heroism and courage.

Here I was sitting in a little bar, on Martin Way, in Lacey Wash., not only talking to a Medal of Honor winner, but someone who'd met Presidents Kennedy and Truman, Sgt York and Audie Murphy, as well as other heroes.

I'd always heard we're only six degrees of separation from anyone else; however, on that day I was only one degree separated from one of this nation's greatest, and quietest heroes--and it all started with a random conversation sparked by a black baseball cap with just one word inscribed.