How often do you get to meet a real-life super hero? The Greatest Generation was Tom Brokaw’s affectionate description for the generation of Americans who grew up during the Great Depression, went on to fight in World War II (WWII) and led the nation’s amazing productivity during the war efforts. I had the great fortune of meeting a real-life super hero and WWII veteran Tazewell Saunders, who is from London, WV. Saunders is one of the few remaining members of the Greatest Generation. During a recent trip to the Charleston VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic, a VA nurse stated that Saunders was likely the oldest living African-American WWII veteran in the state of West Virginia.
Saunders served in different theatres during the European conflict, but guarding German prisoners of war was an interesting challenge. Saunders’ most enjoyable experiences occurred when he served as a military police officer. He recalled with excitement the task of guarding the German soldiers immediately following the Battle of the Bulge. He fondly talked about being quick enough to avoid facing live grenades and enemy fire from German soldiers attempting to free their imprisoned comrades. Today, he requires the assistance of a wheelchair or cane to get around.
After the war, Saunders found stable employment at the Alloy Metals plant in Alloy, WV. He raised a family in the area and became a pillar in the community. I had the distinct honor of meeting with Saunders on March 24, 2017, at the American Red Cross WV Region in Charleston. He previously met with two of our Veteran Service Officers (VSOs) staff to learn about specific service claims available to him. Saunders, a 100-year-old veteran, had never filed for VA service claims. He was eligible for service claims due to his service during the war and the associated injuries sustained.
The Red Cross’ team of VSOs, led by Elvin Campbell, was thrilled to meet Saunders at the Booker T. Washington Community Center in London. Due to Campbell’s 22-year career with the U.S. Army, he skillfully assists veterans with peer support and offers great advice to veterans of all ages. The team of VSOs have committed to meeting with veterans at the London community center once a month. I accompanied Campbell on a few occasions and found the experience to be tremendously rewarding.
The community center is managed by Saunders’ daughter, Gloria Rhem. Rhem put her heart and soul into the community center’s renovation, and she proudly gave the Red Cross team a guided tour of the former school. The classrooms were turned into meeting rooms, an industrial kitchen and offices, and the gym now serves as a large community gathering space. Rhem collected enough exercise equipment from friends and relatives to furnish a nice fitness center.
The Red Cross VSOs anticipate the cooperation of the KML Carpentry Union Representatives from Beckley to assist a group of elderly veterans with the construction of wheelchair ramps onto their respective residences. Last month, the KML Carpentry Union Representatives donated their services and helped a veteran in Beckley with a residential wheelchair ramp. The team of VSOs will continue to help veterans in the London area as well as expand the workshops into difference areas of the state.
About the Author
Nadir Mirza is the regional service to the armed forces program manager for the American Red Cross WV Region.