WELLSBURG - Saturday night brought good news and a special tribute to a local veteran for those attending a dinner-dance held by the Brooke County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation.
The group has been working for the last eight years to establish a park within Brooke Hills Park honoring all Brooke County veterans and memorializing those who died while serving their country.
During the event, Howard Armstrong, the group's president, noted Janice McFadden, Brooke Hills Park manager, stated at the 2011 dinner the memorial park would be completed later that year.
VETERAN OF THE YEAR — George R. “Bobby” Lauck of Wellsburg was honored as Brooke County Veteran of the Year by the Brooke County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation at its annual dinner-dance Saturday at the Wellsburg Banquet Hall. Lauck is holding the 14.2 ounce of shrapnel removed from his back while serving in a tank crew under enemy fire during World War II.
The news came as a surprise to him and other foundation members, he said, as the group wasn't close to raising the needed funds.
"But I'm pleased to say that Janice's optimism has, in fact, become reality," Armstrong said, adding construction of the park near Brooke Hills' paddle boat pond is expected later this spring and a dedication should occur no later than Veterans Day.
Armstrong said donations from many businesses, groups and individuals and a $15,000 state Community Participation grant secured by local representatives to the West Virginia Legislature have allowed the group to reach its goal of $187,000 for the park's construction.
State Sens. Jack Yost, D-Wellsburg, and Orphy Klempa, D-Wheeling; and state Dels. Roy Givens, D-Wellsburg, and Phil Diserio, D-Follansbee, on Saturday announced the grant, which will be used for a monument honoring local veterans who were prisoners of war or missing in action, lighting and other aspects of the park.
Armstrong said the group's fundraising efforts will continue, however, as money is needed for the park's ongoing maintenance. He noted sponsors are sought for granite pavers that will serve as the park's floor, and the blocks may be engraved in memory or honor of anyone, whether they were a veteran or not.
Plans call for the park to include monuments denoting local service members who were killed while serving in military conflicts from World War II to the present.
The park was inspired by the death of Marine Lance Cpl. Michael J. Smith Jr., a 21-year-old Wellsburg native who was killed while serving in Afghanistan in 2004.
Paul "Bud" Billiard, publicity coordinator for the group, said even after the park is built, the group will carry on its tradition of naming a Brooke County Veteran of the Year.
Receiving that honor this year was George R. "Bobby" Lauck, a Wellsburg man who received the Purple Heart and four Bronze Stars for his service in the 1st Armored Division of the 13th Armored Regiment in North Africa and Italy during World War II.
Lauck brought with him a unique memento of his service: a 14.2 ounce chunk of shrapnel removed from his back by a military surgeon. A gunner in a three-man tank crew, he was in the turret when his tank was rendered immobile by enemy fire and he was struck by shrapnel. Lauck said more shrapnel was removed from his leg on three occasions, there's still shrapnel in his body too deep to be removed and he still suffers from back pain. But he's grateful his injuries weren't more serious.
"I'm lucky it wasn't an inch deeper or I could have been paralyzed," he said.
Lauck carried the chunk with him for the remainder of his service, which included driving Nazi forces out of Italy.
Years later he asked an employee of the produce department at a local grocery to weigh the shrapnel, and his family arranged for it to be encased for his safekeeping. For a time you could see his dried blood around the tip of the part that entered his back, he recalled.
Before the dinner, Lauck said of the award, "It's a real big honor. I just hope I don't start crying."
As he rose to accept the award, Lauck did wipe his eyes before expressing thanks to God and his parents and family and lamenting the assistant driver in his tank crew was injured and his lieutenant was killed in the same attack.
"It's really an honor to be here. I want to thank everyone who had a hand in this celebration," he said.
Recruited to present the award was Lauck's son-in-law - William Edward Roberts, a retired Air Force colonel, who said Lauck can be proud to be part of a division that reclaimed 41 cities and towns from Nazi occupation, captured 108,740 prisoners and garnered numerous military honors in its efforts to liberate Europe from German forces.
Lauck was 18 when he entered the Army and one of 11 children, including three brothers who also would serve in the military during World War II, securing the famed bridge at Remagen; the Korean and Vietnam wars; and at peacetime, guarding the president at Camp David.
Asked about the conditions in which he served, he recalled sleeping in a pit dug under his tank on cold nights in the North African desert.
He and the other troops had two 5-minute showers over three years. At other times they washed themselves using water poured into their helmets from a gallon of water "if you had the time," Lauck said.
He said communication with family at home wasn't as readily available as it is today.
"You never got a letter," Lauck said.
He said folks at home did get a glimpse of him on duty, however, when a crew Movietone News filmed him and other soldiers peering out of their tanks as they passed through Rome. The manager at Wellsburg's former Alpine Theater recognized him when the short news film was screened there, Lauck said.
When Lauck returned home, he returned to truck driving, primarily hauling coal for local mines, and he and his wife of 43 years, Margaret, had four children. Now 90, he has four grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
Billiard said when he was a boy, Lauck gave him rides in his truck, but he wasn't aware then of his military service.
"I didn't know when I was riding in that dump truck with Bobby, I was riding with a hero," he said.
Lauck also was presented a proclamation in honor of his service from Gov. Early Ray Tomblin, who was represented by Michelle Figaretti.
Attendees also heard from Ryan Weld, a Brooke High School graduate who, as a captain with the Air Force Reserve, served on a reconstruction team in Afghanistan and shared his experiences, good and bad, through regular newspaper columns and Facebook entries.
Weld, who is enrolled in the Duquesne University School of Law, said he's honored to speak at a dinner honoring a member of what many have called America's Greatest Generation.
He reflected on the nation's current attitude toward the troops. He noted a recent CBS/New York Times poll found that 69 percent of 968 Americans surveyed do not support military involvement in Afghanistan. But Weld said ambivalence toward that situation and other conflicts abroad hasn't prevented a majority of Americans from supporting the troops.
"Each day in Afghanistan and elsewhere a service member receives a card of thanks from someone they have never met," Weld said, adding many have received care packages, also.
He added that since 2004, a volunteer group known as Welcome Home a Hero has greeted more than 900,000 soldiers returning from service abroad as they arrived at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
Weld said while many Americans have made it a point to show their appreciation to the many men and women serving in the military today, he wanted to express thanks, on their behalf, to the public for its support.