"When do we get to go home?" Alice Gossett inquired, a little irritably. She wore brown pajamas and soft purple booties. Tiny in her wheelchair, her feet didn't quite reach the ground.
"As soon as we get our treat!" the nurse answered, beaming at her.
Gossett was not impressed. "Never mind our treat," she said. "We're ready to go, and I mean go all the way." The dozen or so people around her, most of them also sitting in wheelchairs, giggled softly.
On a grey afternoon this week at the Community Living Center at the Dallas VA Medical Center, the veterans knew they were waiting for someone important, even if not all of them were clear just who it was. Many didn't know that this is National Salute to Veterans Week. Approaching or in their 90s, some hadn't thought about their World War II service in many years.
"Something that long ago, you just don't think about it," Billy Matthews told me. He'll be 84 next month.
A few moments later, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson bustled into the room, accompanied by an entourage of staffers. "I started my nursing career here at the VA," she told the vets. "I cannot express to you how much you have meant to this country."
The congresswoman gave each veteran a commemorative coin stamped with an image of Doris Miller, a Navy cook (and boxing champ) who fought during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was the first African American soldier to be given a Navy Cross; he also won a Purple Heart, the American Defense Service Medal, a Fleet Clasp, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal; and the World War II Victory Medal.
"He was a neighbor of mine growing up in Waco," Johnson told the veterans. "He was a friend of my father's." She passed out letters of thanks and coins to each of them in turn.
"It's bee-yoo-tee-ful," Pearl Davis said admiringly. She wore a star-spangled baseball cap; some 70 years ago, she was a flight nurse.
"Thank you for your service," Johnson said.
"What do you want us to do with these?" Davis replied, holding the coin out to her and smiling sweetly.
"Because of you, we can have a safe nation," Johnson told Charles Fox, sitting beside Davis.
"Thank you," he said softly. His hands shook a little as he held the coin. "I'm proud to do it. And I'd do it again."
Billy Matthews, the 84-year-old vet who said he hadn't thought about the war in years, came from Longview, Texas. He spent four years in Japan and Korea in the Army Air Corps. "I was lucky," he said. "The group I was with all got wiped out." After the war ended, he became a civilian trader. "I made life over in the far East and spent 12 years in Japan. It's quite a nice place."
Matthews has spent 28 months in the VA Hospital, recovering from huge, fast-growing tumors on his forehead that have blinded him in his left eye and forced his right eye closed. When the congresswoman handed him his coin and certificate, he reached out "into a white fog" to take them; he ran his thumb over the raised face of the coin, trying to make out the image.
"World War II -- if you were of age, you were in the service," he said. "We were very fortunate to win that war. We've been fighting ever since, and we haven't won a decent war. Every one was a terrible mistake. We've gained nothing."
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He ran his fingers over the coin again, smiled a little, and changed the subject. "I'm grateful for the VA," he said. As for cancer, well, "it beats not breathing. When you're about to hit 84, that's fine and dandy."
Al Garrett, a soft-spoken 90-year-old beside him, spoke up suddenly, He too was in the Air Corps. He went in in 1941 and spent three years in Waco and Seattle "before the Japanese quit," he said.
"I knew somebody was coming today," he said, as the congresswoman and her staff packed up and left. Nurses started to wheel their patients out of the room, off to doctor's appointments and the evening's bingo game, a few hours away.
"I'm happy to see one of these," he said, clutching his coin. "I'm proud."