It's never too late to thank a veteran

Thanksgiving Day made me think about our military members both here and abroad.  Although Veteran’s Day has passed, I thought: “It’s never too late to thank a veteran.”

Our great country has just come through a very close Presidential election. Millions of citizens turned out to exercise the privilege of selecting the next leader of the free world.  That is a privilege that has come at a heavy price.  Since the beginning of our great Republic more than 1 million brave men and woman have lost their lives defending our liberty.

My family, like most families in America, has its share of veterans. My Uncle George served in the Army under General George Patton during World War II.  After the war he lived with the physical and mental scars of war. Other uncles served in the Navy and Air Force during Vietnam. My father-in-law was a radio man in the Marines serving in the Pacific Theater during World War II. I currently have two nephews in the Army (they served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan) and another nephew in the Air Force Academy. Our family is enormously proud of all of them.

Perhaps as a result of so many people in my family serving in our nation’s military, I have always viewed each and every veteran as a hero. It is only because of the sacrifice and service of our veterans that we continue to be the freest, greatest nation on earth.

Several years ago, the former Florida State University President T.K. Wetherall asked me to stop by his house to greet Tom Brokaw. Brokaw was coming to town to speak at a World War II memorial event at FSU. When I arrived, there were a handful of people standing around — all waiting for the arrival of the former NBC News anchor.

I noticed one elderly gentleman standing by himself, so I walked over to him and struck up a conversation. For the next 20 minutes, this unassuming man who was no more than 5’5” tall and 135 pounds told me his story. It is a story everyone should hear.

The man’s name was Harold Baumgarten. He grew up in New York City. After high school, he attended NYU where he was active in the Army ROTC. While in school, World War II broke out. He entered the Army and served as a rifleman in the 116th Infantry at the age of 18.

Harold recalled vividly sitting on a ship off the coast of Omaha Beach waiting to begin the Normandy Invasion. He could see German machine gun nests on the beach sitting 25 feet high. Harold said they expected opposition, but no one anticipated machine guns nests. He knew they would be sitting ducks when they hit the beach. In fact, after seeing the machine gun nest perched high in the air, Harold wrote a letter to his sister telling her he would not be coming home.

Harold left the ship and boarded a wooden British landing craft at 3:30 a.m. It was pitch black. The water was ice cold and there were high waves. After a three-hour journey in rough seas, the landing craft made it ashore. As soon as the ramp door was lowered the bullets started flying. As many as 30 men in the landing craft were shot by a German machine gun. The water was red with blood as Harold made it to the beach.

Harold was shot in the face — fragments from an 88mm shell broke his jaw and blew out his left cheek. A bullet aimed for his heart hit the M1 rifle that he was clutching over his chest. Friends were killed all around Harold as the bullets continued to fly.

Harold watched a wounded soldier praying on his knees while clutching rosary beads cut down by machine gun fire. While lying injured on the beach, Harold saw his sergeant in an even worse situation. The sergeant had been shot in both legs, the head and the shoulder, and was not able to move.

Harold said, “I felt like I could either lay on the beach and die — or fight.” Harold crawled on the beach to the sergeant — and while staying on the ground pulled his sergeant on his back. Harold held his rifle with one hand — and the sergeant with the other and slowly crawled to a sea wall which provided some cover. That journey was all the more difficult because the sergeant was twice the size of Harold. After moving his sergeant to a safe spot Harold continued to fight.

By afternoon, Harold had made his way to the top of the beach. By then, he not only had the wound to his face, he also had a bullet wound in the head and a leg. Thousands of brave Americans died on Omaha Beach that day, most within 15 minutes of landing on shore, but Harold Baumgarten wasn’t one of them. Harold later discovered that one other man from his landing craft survived that day — only one.

Harold was one of the lucky ones—he not only survived the Normandy invasion—he survived the war.  After the war Harold went back to NYU where he earned a bachelor’s degree. He later earned a master’s degree and medical doctorate degree from the University of Miami. He became a doctor and moved to Jacksonville where he and his wife raised three children.

Harold told me after the war he never talked about the horrors of Omaha Beach. Then one day in the ’70s he learned that the other survivor from his landing craft had died. It occurred to him that no one was telling the story of the bravery and sacrifice that took place on June 6 of 1944 — so Harold starting talking. He wrote a book and gave lectures. Somewhere along the way, Tom Brokaw found out about Harold and told his story in the book “The Greatest Generation.” Harold’s story inspired Steven Spielberg’s opening scene in “Saving Private Ryan.”

I never did meet Tom Brokaw that night. He was late, and I had another event to attend.

The fact is, it was a thrill of a lifetime to meet Harold Baumgarten. It was honor just to be in his presence let alone hear his story firsthand.

Veterans Day was for all of us to thank Harold and the 22 million veterans across America.  Thanksgiving Day made me think that it is never too late to thank a veteran.

Jeff Kottkamp was Florida’s 17th Lieutenant Governor and a former member of the Florida House of Representatives. Kottkamp now serves as CEO of VR Laboratories in Bonita Springs, Florida.  VR Labs is an innovative natural products company formed by industry professionals to be the leading global formulator and producer of botanical pharmaceuticals, medicinal foods and botanical based food products.