Veterans Find Irony In Honors

November 12, 1992|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Staff Writer

Bill Sparks, a man of letters, sonnets and and wisdom accumulated over 66 years, sat on a bench with his friends smoking cigarettes and discussing the issues of this day.

In the gray morning, his face was gaunt, the eyes piercing. In front of him and his fellow patients outside the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, 3900 Loch Raven Blvd., newly placed American flags cooperated with the occasional raw breeze and fluttered.

A sign saying "Everyday is Veterans Day" hung on the front of the hospital, and the 150 patients at the Northeast Baltimore facility were treated to a visit by 14 enlisted Navy personnel from the National Security Agency at Fort Meade. The visitors distributed small American flags on sticks to which red, white and blue ribbons and flowers were attached.

It was Veterans Day 1992, and for a flash there was appreciation for all to see.

Other ceremonies were held throughout the Baltimore area. A wreath was laid at the Black Soldiers Monument, Calvert and Lexington streets; in Remington, women veterans were honored; in community squares, Veterans of Foreign Wars halls and cemeteries around Maryland, the country's service men and women were remembered.

But Bill Sparks and others -- while grateful for yesterday's visits and the love offered by more than 300 volunteers at Loch Raven year round -- wondered aloud about the other 364 days of the year.

"I would suspect," Mr. Sparks began, "most people like myself will pay their personal mental homage to the meaning of this day. But a lot of people talk a good game. Tomorrow will be tomorrow."

Mr. Sparks was reared in Catonsville and joined the Navy shortly before the outbreak of the Korean War. He was a forward observer and called in heavy naval gunfire in support of ground troops. He was at a place called Hung Nam when U.S. Marines and Army infantry were evacuated as Chinese Communist troops surged down from the north. That's his baggage, just as others carry their memories of Tarawa, the Chosin Reservoir, the Ia Drang Valley, Hue and other places where American blood was spilled in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

"You never know who will come out and bear arms, literally and morally," he said. "Heroes are usually very unlikely people.

"I will always have a special relationship with my country because of what I chose to do," Mr. Sparks said. "The men in this hospital are bent and broken because they put their lives on the line for something called honor.

"You see, some of the guys you see in here walking around with their medals on will be discharged from the hospital when their time comes," he said, referring to patients who are medically able to leave.

"They are indigent and will be without a place to sleep or eat. Where is Veterans Day in December or January or June?"

The hospital cares for ill veterans but cannot provide a home for them once they are deemed fit to be medically discharged, and many are indeed homeless.

Petty Officer Julie Duffy called her morning spent at the VA hospital "very emotional."

"It taught me not to forget and plan for us to come back next year. We have to keep in our minds that patriotism doesn't stop when you're discharged from the military."

Inside, seated near the information desk in the main lobby, a lone man sat in a brown robe and rolled-up pajamas. He wore a scruffy New York Yankees baseball cap and clutched one of the small flags brought by the Navy visitors.

Louis Moore, 70, of Baltimore, was in the hospital for surgery, he said. He was in the Army for 13 years and fought in the North Apennines and Po Valley in Italy with the 92nd Division during World War II.

"I was a squad leader," he said proudly. "I lost almost all of my close friends in Italy. I remember every day, the good ones and the bad ones. The good ones were when we went on leave, the bad ones in combat.

"Nobody talks about people like me except on Veterans Day," Mr. Moore said. "They gave me a nice little flag today. Will they give me another one tomorrow?"

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