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A Final Gift from Woody Williams

A friend reflects on the incredible life of the World War II veteran and Medal of Honor Recipient.

Author Roberta Messner and WWII Veteran Woody Williams; photo by Scott Goldsmith
Credit: Scott Goldsmith
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Like the rest of America, I was deeply saddened at the recent passing of Hershel “Woody” Williams, the last living World War II recipient of the Medal of Honor, the highest military award a service member can receive.

Five days into the Battle of Iwo Jima, he was the only surviving Marine in his six-man team. The five-foot-six soldier, who didn’t meet the height requirement the first time he tried to join the service, prepared and employed his flamethrowers to stunningly heroic effect. But it is his heroic service to his country in the decades since he returned from the war that makes him such a legend.

Woody spent a lifetime advocating for our veterans before establishing the Woody Williams Foundation, which provides scholarships to Gold Star children and helps to establish Gold Star Family Memorial Monuments across the country.

He was a friend to all in our beloved state of West Virginia. In fact the governor’s office has announced that Woody is to be the first inductee into the newly established West Virginia Military Hall of Fame. But to me he became a personal friend and mentor.

As a nurse at the VA Medical Center in Huntington that now bears his name, I had the honor of observing Woody up close for 38 years. He was often there, chatting with veterans and offering a comforting word. I soon learned that Woody was not just a legend to revere, but a real-life person to learn from. Through the years Woody taught me how to care for veterans and to be of service to others.

Last Veterans Day, I was honored to write about it for Guideposts.

The two of us met at a local diner to catch up. Typical of Woody he wanted to know about other veterans. Stories had long been soul-sustenance for him. When he’d returned to West Virginia from World War II, his body, mind and spirit were tormented by the unspeakable horrors of war. He told his own story anywhere he was invited, his load a little lighter with each telling.

The photo shoot for our story took place the day before my birthday. What was to be Woody’s 98th birthday—his last—would be nine days later on October 2nd. We began the shoot enjoying a delicious cake photographer Scott Goldsmith brought from Pittsburgh. As the day unfolded, Woody and I talked about many things. His adored wife, Ruby, who had been a devout woman of faith and a devoted Guideposts reader, and his cherished daughters and grandchildren. How the two of us shared more than birthdays close on a calendar. For on Easter Sundays 56 years apart, we had each found a new life borne of opening our hearts to God. Transforming personal pain into a divine purpose.

Soon after our photo shoot, Woody asked me to meet him at a nearby restaurant. In his hands was a wooden cross he made with commemorative medals representing the different service branches. “A remembrance of our shared faith in God and love of veterans,” he told me. I had no idea it would be our final earthly visit.

As he drove off into the distance, I thought about how Hershel “Woody” Williams had taught me see veterans differently, to see the poetry of their courage and bravery on each of their faces. He left me with this: “I guess we can understand just about anyone when we know their story.” Yes, Woody, indeed. Thank you for your story.

To learn more about the Woody Williams foundation, visit: woodywilliams.org.

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