- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2005

Frank W. Buckles was a 16-year-old Missouri farm boy when he joined the Army in July 1917 as one of more than 4.7 million Americans enlisted during what was known then as the Great War.

Today, the 104-year-old Mr. Buckles, a retired West Virginia cattle farmer, is among at least 50 American World War I veterans still living, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Those few dozen are among the nearly 25 million surviving U.S. veterans, which includes about 18.4 million war veterans. The rest served during peacetime.

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As one of the oldest surviving veterans, Mr. Buckles may attend ceremonies today marking Memorial Day. He recalls one such commemoration that took place six years ago when French President Jacques Chirac presented him and three other World War I veterans with the French Legion of Honor.

“The French Embassy even sent a stretch limo to my farm to pick me up. That was a surprise,” says Mr. Buckles, who was interviewed for the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress five years ago.

Regardless, if he attends any events this year, his mind easily can go back to the time of World War I to recall names, places and dates.

His job was to drive ambulances and motorcycles on rescue and scout missions in England and France.

He says his time overseas in the Army made him value the freedom of being an American and that he and his war buddies really thought the Great War was the “war to end all wars.”

It did not take long, however, for them to realize how wrong they were.

Dying out

Mr. Buckles is part of a dwindling legion. The number of surviving American veterans is falling sharply; about 1,640 die each day, or 600,000 each year.

In September 2000, the total number of survivors was nearly 26.5 million. In 2003, the figure was down to 25.2 million.

By September 2010, the projected number of surviving veterans is expected to be 22 million. That total will drop to 18 million by 2020 and to 15 million in 2030, according to VA projections.

The oldest of those survivors, Emiliano Mercado Del Toro of Puerto Rico, is 113 years old. Drafted near the end of World War I, he never faced combat. He never left Puerto Rico.

Phil Budahn, VA spokesman, says the government’s projections for a continuing decline in the numbers of surviving military veterans “would include new generations of veterans” who qualify for benefits.

No one expects the number of new veterans to approach the numbers dying. “This year, we’re expecting the deaths of 662,000 vets … and we’re expecting 633,000 deaths 10 years from now,” Mr. Budahn says.

Although the annual death toll is expected to dip to 512,000 veterans in 2025, Mr. Budahn says it’s anticipated the military will discharge about 200,000 active-duty or reservists or National Guardsmen yearly. They then will be added to the VA rolls.

Providing for veterans

The decline in living veterans, however, has little effect on the VA.

“We are providing survivors’ benefits to about 340,000 people, who most typically are surviving spouses of veterans,” Mr. Budahn says.

For example, he says, the VA has five children of Civil War veterans on its rolls, as well as about 45,000 children and 12,000 spouses of World War I vets, plus 16,000 children and 247,000 spouses of World War II vets.

Even with the tighter eligibility restrictions, the number of patients in the VA medical system has grown from 2.9 million to 5.2 million since 1998, Mr. Budahn says.

A key reason for the growth, he says, is the VA’s “generous” prescription-drug program. Medicines are free for those with illnesses or injuries related to military service and cost $7 for a one-month supply for veterans whose pharmacy needs are not related to military service.

“We’re able to provide high-quality medical care that allows our vets to live longer,” Mr. Budahn says. “But as a person ages, he has greater health demands”

The spokesman holds that the VA’s “immediate, most important” priority is to “have enough money committed to older vets, as we take care of a new generation of combat veterans.”

With the fiscal 2006 VA budgets, Mr. Budahn says, “We’re confident we can meet all our responsibilities.”

Mr. Buckles, the World War I veteran, has used VA medical benefits and “has great respect for the VA.” It has been nearly a decade since such assistance enabled him to acquire electronic devices that improved his hearing.

“Since 1998, we’ve had a system that has assigned the highest priority to vets with service-connected illnesses or injuries, to vets who are poor and to vets with catastrophic medical problems,” Mr. Budahn says.

The VA “can and does treat other veterans, but they have to make co-payments.” Many older veterans fail to find out whether they are eligible for benefits.

Others choose not to use them.

Among those is Maudie Hopkins, 89, of Lexa, Ark., who emerged last year as a surviving Confederate widow, the last, and surely the last such link to the War Between the States that ended nearly a century and a half ago. In 1934, when she was 19, she married William M. Cantrell, then 86. Mr. Cantrell served in a Kentucky regiment and was captured in April 1863.

The VA does not provide benefits to Mrs. Hopkins because she doesn’t want government assistance.

Lloyd Brown, a 105-year-old World War I veteran who lives in Charlotte Hall, Md., in St. Mary’s County, does not receive VA benefits, either.

“He has never used [VA] benefits,” says his daughter, Nancy Espino. “We looked into it and were told he has too much income to qualify.”

Mr. Brown was a teenager in Missouri when he enlisted in the Navy in 1915. For most of World War I, he was part of a gunnery crew on the USS New Hampshire, based in Norfolk. The New Hampshire was assigned to search for German U-boats, as submarines were called, keeping the shipping lanes open between the United States and Europe.

Mr. Brown spent hours at a time in the crow’s-nest of the coal-powered battleship.

“We saw a German sub, captured it and brought it into the Philadelphia Navy Yard,” where the crew was imprisoned, Mr. Brown says.

He uses a golf cart to get around his yard, Mrs. Espino says, and “sometimes he goes out in it on the road.” Mr. Brown says that isn’t necessarily so, but concedes he does “ride around the neighborhood.”

He’s included in a study of centenarians, and how they spend their time, conducted by Boston University.

Place to call home

Two veterans — both of whom were career soldiers and served in at least two war theaters — were interviewed at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in the District.

The wooded 276-acre property, in the 3700 block of North Capitol Street Northwest, is an independent agency administered by the executive branch of government.

Once the home of George W. Riggs, founder of the Riggs National Bank, it became a “military asylum” or “safe haven” for veterans in 1851, when purchased by the government.

During the 49 months of his presidency, Abraham Lincoln spent 13 months at the home as a getaway during the hot summer. He is thought to have worked on the Emancipation Proclamation there. The home currently has 976 residents — nearly 90 percent of them men, officials from the home say.

“It’s ironic that a lot of people don’t even know we exist,” says spokeswoman Sheila Motley. Of the residents, 828 are classified as independent, meaning they can care for themselves. They must be in that condition when they arrive.

William D. Woods, 74, of Cambridge, Mass., who was a platoon sergeant, has been at the home since 1993. “I came here to use Walter Reed [Army Medical Center],” he says.

He recalls how he dropped out of high school at age 17 to join the Army.

“It was the thing to do. It was the Cold War, and all the girls liked men in uniforms at that time [1947]. We were all knights in shining armor.”

Mr. Woods served with the 6th Infantry Division and was in the demilitarized zone at the 38th parallel, which divided North and South Korea. He worked as a radio operator to direct artillery fire.

“I went from private to sergeant because I could read a map and use a compass.”

He remained in the Army for 22 years. He says the disabilities he acquired, which brought him to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the early 1990s, resulted from his exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliant that includes dioxin, in Vietnam.

“We used it to kill weeds, and it was killing us, too.”

Mr. Woods says exposure to Agent Orange seriously impaired his circulation, and doctors at a hospital in Cambridge, Mass., wanted to amputate his right foot. He checked into Walter Reed for a second opinion, and his foot was saved.

Another resident, Allen N. Frazier, often is told he looks fit for being 78. The retired Marine Corps master gunnery sergeant offers his own reason: “I drink good scotch.”

Mr. Frazier, who grew up in Montclair, N.J., served in three wars: World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He dropped out of high school toward the end of World War II and joined the Merchant Marines as a seaman.

He had several close calls, both on and off duty, in that cargo-hauling capacity. “In 1945, I was on one of the first ships that took relief to Poland under the Marshall Plan.”

Another one of the cargo vessels he served on carried “1,500 war brides and their babies” from England to the United States.

“I still communicate with two of those war brides who live in Michigan and Florida,” Mr. Frazier says.

He found the women after reading a book they had written about war brides from World War II, which mentioned his ship.

“I volunteered for the Marine Corps to avoid the draft,” he says. He finished high school, married and remained for 23 years and two more wars.

A matter of respect

Veterans of World War I lack something vets of other decades-old conflicts lack — a major memorial.

In addition to their remarkably good health and lucidity, World War I survivors Mr. Buckles and Mr. Brown think there should be a memorial on the national Mall for those who served in that war, just as there are memorials for veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

“They should have done that a long time ago,” Mr. Buckles says.

What exists today in the shadow of the grand World War II memorial is a small circle of columns covered by a dome that was erected in 1931. The memorial was paid for by the District and honors the local sacrifices made during World War I. “They also should have [a memorial] for Gen. John J. Pershing,” he says.

Among Mr. Buckles’ fondest memories was meeting and talking at length with Gen. Pershing, who led troops in World War I, at a tribute for the Allied commander in Oklahoma City in January 1920.

“I was 18 and only a corporal, but the general asked to speak to me,” Mr. Buckles says. “It turned out he was born just 43 miles from my home in Charles Town.”

Mr. Buckles describes Gen. Pershing as a “wonderful man” and says: “He was really tough. He didn’t take any guff.”

Researcher John Sopko contributed to this report.

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