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From the Ardennes Forest to Da Nang

Maj. Gen. Timothy McGuire, deputy commanding general for U.S. Army Europe, and Charles Shay, a Native American D-Day veteran who participated in the liberation of France, shake hands at the Charles Shay Memorial in Saint Laurent sur Mer, France, June 5, 2017. (DoD photo by A1C Alexis C. Schultz/Released) Maj. Gen. Timothy McGuire, deputy commanding general for U.S. Army Europe, and Charles Shay, a Native American D-Day veteran who participated in the liberation of France, shake hands at the Charles Shay Memorial in Saint Laurent sur Mer, France, June 5, 2017. (DoD photo by A1C Alexis C. Schultz)

The deafening roar of combat echoed through the air above the Higgins boat. For what seemed like eternity, the young men sat silently as the boat approached the heavily fortified beaches of Normandy. They would soon be part of the first wave to land at Omaha Beach, where the fighting was especially fierce.

“Survival was on the minds of everybody,” said Charles Shay, now 93 years old. He was just 19 when he was assigned as a platoon medic to Fox Company, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division – also known as the Big Red One. Seventy-three years after his first experience in combat, Shay reflects on his military medicine career and stresses the importance of sharing stories with future generations.

“It’s important to remember and understand what veterans have gone through,” said Shay, a veteran who has been awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Legion d’Honneur, the highest decoration in France for military and civil merits. In addition to observing Veterans Day every November 11, Shay also honors Native Americans Veterans Day on June 21. He was instrumental in establishing this day of appreciation in Maine – the first state to recognize it.

Since 2007, the Penobscot tribal elder has made an annual trip to Normandy from his home on Indian Island, Maine. He retraces his steps to pay homage at the stretch of beaches where thousands of lives were lost.

In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, then-Private First Class Shay witnessed the carnage unfold in front of him as the ramp of the Higgins boat lowered. Some of the suddenly exposed infantrymen were killed or injured almost immediately, Shay said.

“I wasn’t prepared for what I saw that day,” Shay said. He reached the beach, spotted an embankment, and ran for cover. Overcome with shock, he found himself unable to move. It took him several minutes before he was able to start tending to people, he said.

As Shay treated the wounded under the cover of the embankment, his attention was pulled to the beach. He noticed the tide was coming in and several wounded men, unable to move, were at risk of drowning. Shay ran out under fire and hooked his arms under theirs to drag each to higher ground to be treated. When he came across a fellow medic, Edward Morocewitz, he knew there was nothing he could do to save him. Morocewitz had a bad stomach wound that could not be bandaged, so Shay gave him a shot of morphine and held him as they said goodbye to each other.

“My job was to save lives and treat the wounded, but the biggest challenge I faced was becoming accustomed to the carnage and the devastation that I was witnessing,” said Shay, who also served in the battles of Aachen, Huertgen Forest, and the “Battle of the Bulge” in the Ardennes Forest. He was taken as a prisoner during the final weeks of the war. Through it all, he remained uninjured.

In 1950, he went to Korea as a medic with the 3rd Infantry Division’s 7th Infantry Regiment. His first mission was to assist the 1st Marine Division, which had been cut off from contact with other United Nations forces. The mission, part of what became known at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, was a success. After one year of service, Shay’s tour came to an end. He entered the Air Force after the war and spent another 20 years in the military as a medical provider before retiring as a master sergeant.

A 1968 photo of Pat (Thomson) Upah in Vietnam at the 95th Evacuation Hospital, Da Nang, which she helped to stand up. (Photo courtesy of Pat Upah)A 1968 photo of Pat (Thomson) Upah in Vietnam at the 95th Evacuation Hospital, Da Nang, which she helped to stand up. (Photo courtesy of Pat Upah)

Every year since 1926, the nation’s veterans have been honored on November 11. It is a day to remember the sacrifices made in protecting the nation, the commitment shared, and the bravery shown.

To Col. Pat Upah, a retired Army nurse, Veterans Day extends beyond one day a year. Upah was only 22 years old when she volunteered with the Army Nurse Corps to go to Vietnam. Assigned to the 93rd Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh, Upah arrived in Vietnam on New Year’s Day 1968 – just weeks before a series of coordinated attacks between North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) forces against cities, military bases, and towns throughout South Vietnam. It would become known as the Tet Offensive.

“At first, it was very quiet and kind of like an adventure, but when the Tet Offensive happened, everything changed,” said Upah. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, about 2.7 million Americans served in Vietnam, of which, approximately 58,000 were killed and more than 150,000 wounded. “For the first time in my life, I thought I could die,” she said. “Viet Cong were trying to get on base and the noise from an ammunition dump that had been hit made it sound like World War III was happening.”

Upah helped bandage and re-bandage open wounds, distribute medicine, and help the air evacuation team transfer patients. Despite a year of training at an Army hospital in Georgia, she was unprepared for the type of injuries and the volume of casualties she’d see in Vietnam, she said.

The Tet Offensive came to an end, but the fight in Vietnam was far from over. Upah made her way north to help stand up the 95th Evacuation Hospital in Da Nang and spent the remainder of her time there. More than two decades after leaving Vietnam, Upah served in Operation Desert Storm.

“It was a different war psychologically,” said Upah, who was deployed for about six months. During the Gulf War, she served with the 403rd Combat Support Hospital as the nurse in charge of enemy prisoner of war units – the busiest units in the hospital. Medical personnel learned to be creative and improvise when they lacked equipment and faced a climate harsher than anything back home, Upah said.

“What we learned in Vietnam helped save lives of the military members fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Upah. “There are many men and women out there who would not have survived in Vietnam with their injuries, but because of what we’ve learned and the advances we’ve made in military medicine with each war, we’re able to save these individuals now.”

Upah retired in 2004 after 30 years of service in the Army Nurse Corps. As an active volunteer who strives to help other veterans, November 11 means more to her than ever before, she said.

“While Veterans Day is really important, every day should be Veterans Day in this country,” said Upah. “Every day we should be taking care of veterans and meeting their needs because some of them gave it their all and some are still giving it their all.”

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