Veterans Day: My Family's Esteemed Silver Star Military History and Why I'm Anti-Conscription

(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Happy Veterans Day and thank you to all who have served!

Staff Sergeant Walter Bernard Sheehan

Today, I honor my “Uncle Bernie,” who is actually my father’s paternal uncle, Staff Sergeant Walter Bernard Sheehan, a Silver Star recipient. It wasn’t long ago that I didn’t know anything about Bernie, he was too-casually mentioned to me in a broader conversation about World War II. I had many questions, starting with, “When were you going to tell me?” My father responded, “I just did.”

And, there were no answers. It was nearly forgotten in the black hole of time, the one thing we should never do to our military heroes. I set out in search of what I could find, but nobody in the family could tell me more than that his name was Bernie… but his name wasn’t Bernie. After piecing it all together, his name was Walter, the same as my great-grandfather’s, which is why they called him Bernie. I was even told he died in Normandy, only later discovering he was awarded for gallantry in action at the Battle of the Bulge.

Luckily, I was able to recover the information and properly honor his sacrifice, at a young 22 years old. Bernie is a hero and he is my personal hero. He blew up a Nazi machine gun nest with hand grenades. Days later, he was killed in action assaulting another Nazi gun, as his unit was taking heavy casualties. I think the young soldier knew he was going to die, but made that choice for the survival of other Americans he was with. I think he died right there, in the snow. Those are my inclinations regarding what happened to my Uncle.

Newspaper clipping from Kansas City Star, 1945, announcing Walter B. Sheehan was posthumously awarded Silver Star. (Coutesy: Brittany Sheehan)

The reason so much information was missing is that in families, traumatic deaths aren’t up for open discussion, oftentimes. My grandfather was devastated by the loss of his closest brother. That’s the only part of the story that was known to younger generations. It wrecked grandpa, always. Grandpa was in the Navy and didn’t see much action in the Pacific. I imagine he felt helpless when getting the news about his brother. The two other brothers were in the other military branches, one Marine and one with the Air Corps in England.

Sheehan Family photo, Staff Sergeant Walter Bernard Sheehan, KIA, Silver Star recipient, pictured third from left. (Courtesy: Brittany Sheehan)

Bernie is buried at the Luxembourg American Cemetery, where General George S. Patton, “Old Blood and Guts,” chose to be laid to rest alongside his Third Army.

I would like to go visit someday. Aside from the fact that Bernie was not repatriated, no family member has ever visited the grave site, and I take this as nobody ever got to say goodbye or pay proper respects. This is probably another reason it was not openly discussed, the family received military medals, but not a loved one’s remains, which may have helped to bring closure.

Walter B. Sheehan’s resting place is at the Luxembourg American Cemetery, where General Patton is also buried. (Courtsey: Brittany Sheehan)

I know we lost a good one. I know Bernie is my favorite ancestor because we are cut from that same cloth. And, while somehow controversial it’s among the reasons I will never change my surname (um, it’s MY name). I’m so proud to be a Sheehan, no other name could bring me the same sense of identity or pride. Thank you, Bernie, for your bravery, your sacrifice, and for making the Sheehan name an honor to bear.

My family has great military service. We sacrificed one of our family members and that sacrifice, along with the many who lost their lives in the Ardennes, in the Battle of the Bulge, greatly impacted the outcome of WWII. It was a significant battle. Bernie’s division would go on to be the first invading army to cross the Rhine since Napoleon. There is a great story about how they took that bridge and ended up with the slogan “Crossed the Rhine with feet dry courtesy of the 9th.”

Since it’s Veterans Day, let’s tell the story.

The 9th Armored Division Takes Ludendorff Bridge

Cross the Rhine With Dry Feet Courtesy 0f 9th Arm’d Div. (Credit: US Army)

From West Point Museum:

March 7, 1945, the U.S. 9th Armored Division, III Corps, First Army, captures the Rhine River bridge at Remagen. The Ludendorff Bridge is the name of what became popularly called the Bridge at Remagen. The Germans had wired the bridge for demolition but only a portion of the explosives went off. Damaged but usable, the Americans seized the opportunity and by nightfall, five infantry and tank battalions are on the east bank.

Over the next 10 days, the Germans tried every means they had to destroy the bridge, including infantry and armor assaults, howitzers, mortars, floating mines, mined boats, a railroad gun, and a giant 540mm super-heavy mortar. The US Army protected the bridge with the largest concentration of anti-aircraft artillery it would use during the War against repeated Luftwaffe attacks.

By March 14th Hitler would order V2 rockets to be launched against the bridge, the only time V2s were used on a target in Germany.

The Ludendorff bridge withstood it all until it finally collapsed on March 17th. By then Army engineers had built pontoon and Bailey bridges to support the breakout.

All of our military members who paid the ultimate sacrifice deserve to be honored and all of these stories should continue to be told.

The WWII family history does not end with the Sheehan side of the family, but I always talk about Bernie first because of his fatality in action and the military honors he was awarded.

Richard and Harold Hall

Twin Brothers Richard and Harold Hall, Marines, Hawaii 1941. (Courtesy: Brittany Sheehan)

My paternal grandmother’s twin brothers were Marines at Pearl Harbor. This story was told more often, for many reasons. One, they both survived the attack, by the Grace of God. Secondly, it is a vivid memory of my grandmother, who turned 94 last month. Pearl Harbor was a shock to this nation, unimaginable that we would be attacked, in US territory, during a war we weren’t even in. And Grandma and our family knew the brothers were there. They just waited to hear the news. Thankfully, good news came in a brief Christmas-themed telegram from Western Union in 1941. It read,



A telegram sent after Pearl Harbor from Richard and Harold Hall to their parents in Kansas City, Missouri, 1941. (Courtesy: Brittany Sheehan/Marine Corps History Division)

That was the best Christmas present ever, and Grandma would never forget it. This telegram and a typed account from Richard about the attack and the rescue mission he and Harold carried out on the USS West Virginia were found published by the Marine Corps History Division as a Remembrance Day post of the Pearl Harbor attack in 2019. Richard’s account is very detailed and fascinating, I encourage you to take the time to read it. Their acts that day are honorable, and important, and convey a harrowing sense of duty and courage.

Richard Hall’s typed account of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the rescue mission on the USS West Virginia. (Courtesy: Brittany Sheehan/Marine Corps History Division)
Richard Hall’s typed account of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the rescue mission on the USS West Virginia. (Courtesy: Brittany Sheehan/Marine Corps History Division)

US Military Service of the Cuban Side of My Family

I can say that my family has a proud military history and that extends to my mother’s side, who are Cuban-Americans — her stepfather and brother are both service members as well. Below is a photo of Grandpa Angel with his son, my Uncle Kevin, who both served in the Marine Corps. I think because the Cuban side of my family were immigrants, including my mother, the military service of Cuban-born and first-generation Americans is important to note. We immigrated to this country and when America adopted my family as their own, we repaid that blessing with military service. Cubans, indeed, make for very proud Americans. 

US Marines Angel Diaz and son Kevin Diaz (Credit: Maria Diaz)

My Beloved Father, the Would-be “Draft Dodger”

But, my father wasn’t a military member.

He didn’t want to be.

In the Vietnam War, Dad was your quintessential “hippie.” They never called his draft number, but without a doubt, he was headed for Canada if they had. My father is a would-be “draft dodger” and that embarrassed me for a long time. “Draft dodger” is a bad word. It’s a stigma.

I wish no offense to our Veterans of the Vietnam War or our casualties there. I do not seek to dishonor anybody. But I am not embarrassed by my father’s choice, had he been called, either. In fact, I’m very proud of it.

My dad was the smallest boy in an all-boys Jesuit Highschool, the same one Bernie attended along with my grandfather. He had bright red hair and frankly, a life-long anxiety disorder. He imagined himself with his bright orange head while trying to remain concealed in the jungle, maybe the worst scenario ever for a redhead. Dad is what you’d call a “late bloomer,” and came into his own later in life. He wasn’t cut out for military combat and I argue that some people simply are not. It takes special qualities and I’m not sure anyone will argue otherwise.

I will spare you the platitudes about the Vietnam War — you don’t need to hear them from someone who remains unafflicted by the somber aspects of it. But, I think I can say that moment in our collective history truly calls into question conscription. It is my opinion that nobody should ever be drafted into a war they do not voluntarily enlist to be in: It’s antithetical to liberty.

My father’s uncle died at 22 years old, shattering his dad’s heart, while his other uncles swam in the oil-fire waters at Pearl Harbor. It is enough. It’s enough of a contribution to this nation. We did our part, we did it well, and with great honor.

We never “owed” the federal government the life or service of another loved one. We do not have to offer our sons up, generation after generation, to the trauma of very real wars. People do not belong to the government and Bernie died at the hands of the Nazi regime, who thought that they did. The Nazis thought they owned people, and due to the sacrifices of many Americans, and many other nations including the insane numbers of casualties of the Red Army, the world was liberated from this evil. I’m not reneging on that principle.

In my journey of discovering my feelings about conscription, from the embarrassment of my “hippie” father to pride for an act of individual liberty that I consider a right of every human, there was one piece of information that solidified my opinion. My son’s birthday is April 24. That was the second birthdate called in the “draft lottery”… which I consider to be a death lottery, sorry to offend. It horrified me as a mother to learn my son would have been the first to go, against free will.

At times my son has expressed interest in joining the military. I neither encourage nor discourage it. It’s not my choice. I can see the positives and negatives of each option. And, I’m a mom, we all get a little spooked by this notion, but the healthy ones try not to impress this anxiety onto our children if that is what they are truly driven to do. Sometimes, those mothers are proven right, that they had everything to fear and their nightmares come true. It was their child who paid the cost with their lives.

We can’t force this on anyone. I’m openly for abolishing the Selective Service. I made a public comment about that in Nevada’s last legislative session. I’m on public record, saying it. I’m not whispering it, I’m screaming it. The arguments for it are basically that it would never happen, again. Well, in that case, we will save tax dollars on this archaic, and supposedly useless, administrative cost.

If we cannot convince the American public to enlist in a war, then the war does not have the approval of Americans and we should not be in it. Americans will do what they are called upon to do when they see a threat and when they want to join the mission. We saw that after September 11th, after the Twin Towers fell — Americans were eager to avenge the loss of life on US soil. With the advantage of the media, and whatever you would call their well-oiled activities, if Americans cannot be convinced to sign up, then they just do not want the war. That’s a valid vote, to me.

So, this Veterans Day, as always, I honor our military service members and our fallen troops. But, I know some of them were not volunteers; they were forced to their deaths by our government and I won’t ever let that go unnoticed, or unopposed. Today, I hear “draft dodger” and think of “individual liberty advocate.” The thing I love and appreciate most about our military members is that I didn’t have to go — because they did. Their volunteerism preserves my liberty every day, in more ways than one.

Thank you, Veterans and military members.

And, thank you that our family got to “sit this one out.”

My wish for all future Americans is that they can know, enjoy, and appreciate what a true liberty that is.

(hashtag ‘Abolish the Draft’)


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