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Monday, May 28, 2012

Remembering my special veterans on Memorial Day

It's Memorial Day, 2012, and of course, it's a day for families and friends, baseball and barbecues. It's the unofficial first day of summer and in northern New Jersey, there's definitely a summer feel, with the temperatures expected to reach 90 today.

But Memorial Day has another more important and lasting meaning. It's to remember all of those dedicated and devoted men and women who gave their lives to help make the United States the incredibly wonderful place it is to live. It's to reflect on those who gave of their time and service to maintain our freedom, to thank those who are still with us for having that fearless pride, to be willing to give of their lives for the benefit of the rest of us.

I know a lot about that sacrifice and service, because it's been a part of my life since I was born.

You see, my father, Jack Hague, served his country well in World War II as a part of the U.S. Army Infantry. He spent almost four years in France and Belgium and was involved with some of the most historic conflicts in history.

My father was not drafted into military service. As a young husband and father, he enlisted to the military soon after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He signed up for duty, like so many other men his age at the time, even though he had a wife and a young son at home to care for.

And my Dad certainly paid the price. While engaged in battle in Belgium, he was in a fox hole with 15 other soldiers. The fox hole was then blown up. All of the other soldiers that were with my father perished. He was the lone survivor. He was badly wounded, with schrapnel in his lower body and back and eventually was diagnosed with a broken back. He desperately tried to dig his way out of the destroyed fox hole to try to get to safety, but there was only so much he could do with a virtually paralyzing injury and only his bare hands to use as tools.

My mother received a telegram from the Army, informing her that my father was missing in action and presumed dead.

With her incredible sixth sense (almost eerie how my mother knew things), she insisted to everyone that her husband was not dead. As his family prepared for a memorial service in his memory, my mother refused to attend, which angered some of my father's sisters more than anything. It was bad enough that Jack Hague married Helen Rzepiejewski, someone of Polish descent. Now, the woman is refusing to honor her dead husband.

For three weeks, there was no word to report about the whereabouts of my father. It was assumed he was gone.

Until miraculously, he was located a full 22 days after the fox hole was destroyed. My Dad was airlifted to a military hospital in France to receive medical attention.

Incredibly, the saga doesn't end there. While recuperating in a full body cast in the hospital outside Paris, the hospital was bombed. He was thrown out of his bed, breaking the cast. Once again, he was injured in the war, thus the reason why he received two Purple Hearts.

Obviously, there was a happy ending to the story, because my father did get sent home after V-E Day and 16 years later, Jack and Helen welcomed their last child, a bouncing baby boy _ and a future sportswriter _ into the world. If Dad wasn't discovered and saved, I would have never been here.

As kids, we were instructed by my mother not to ask my father about what happened in World War II. It was obviously an emotional and troubling time. My mother said that there were times in the middle of the night that my father would be dreaming and be scraping at the walls of their bedroom, desperately trying to get out. The nightmares lingered for years.

My father's back was obviously never the same. He could not return to his job at General Motors in Edison, because he physically could not handle the pain. He would work for two days, then be bedridden for a week. He eventually took a job in the automotive department for the city of Jersey City and remained there until he died of cancer on New Year's Eve, 1971.

I was only 10 years old, but he's been such a gigantic and almost imposing influence on my life, someone who I adored, admired and longed to be like, even to this very day, as I approach the age he was when he passed away. I still long to be the man that Jack Hague was. He was easily the greatest man I've ever known and a day doesn't go by where I don't miss him.

My other special veteran is my big brother, known as Jackie to his family, but also known as Jack to his friends, just like his father. He enlisted and served for more than five years in the United States Marine Corps. He reached the rank of Lance Corporal and was one of the first Marines ever sent to Thailand before the Vietnam conflict started to become heated.

Although my brother's military career isn't as dramatic as my father's, he was a Marine through and through, Semper Fi every single day. Nothing in the world, other than the birth of his children and eventually the birth of his grandson, gave him more pride than being a Marine. He wore his Marine colors on his sleeve, much like his heart.

Unfortunately, my brother is no longer with us as well. He passed away in January of 1998. But he also is remembered today.

Two members of the same family who gave of their time for their country and served their country well. Yes, that's the true meaning of Memorial Day. Yes, I pause and reflect today on all of the wonderful people, both still here and gone, who served our nation. But I remember my two special veterans, who might be gone, but far from forgotten.

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