In Search of My Veteran Dad’s WWII Memories

As my dad’s memories fade due to Alzheimer’s disease, the list of things that still stick with him gets increasingly shorter. My mom’s name is frequently on his lips, even though she passed on a year ago. His service dog, Mr. Jackson, is still his key companion and, even when he can’t remember his name, he looks for “the dog.” And he still knows the 10th Mountain Division, with whom he served in World War II as they drove the Nazis and Mussolini out of Italy. Being a veteran is one of the few things that Dad still identifies with.

Mention the 10th and Dad’s face lights up with recognition. He’s likely to enthusiastically bellow (in his best Italian accent), “Lago di Garda!” That’s Lake Garda, where he earned his Bronze Star and where the 10th ended the war in Italy. (The war in the rest of Europe came to a close just a few days later.)

Over the years, I’ve had the great honor and pleasure of accompanying Dad to many of his Arizona 10th Mountain Division Veterans meetings and two national reunions of the soldiers of the 10th. I’m a member of the 10th’s descendants’ organization. I’ve loved hearing Dad’s stories — he started talking more about his military service as he got older. But now he can no longer remember many of the details of his time with the elite mountain troops.

I’ve always wanted to travel to Italy with Daddy, to witness his connection with the 10th there. But circumstances always got in the way, and I regret I never got to go with him. Recently, however, I set out with my best friend, Susan, to trace Daddy’s path with the 10th through the Po Valley and up the shoreline of Lake Garda. It was an incredibly emotional experience as I was transported back in my imagination to a time when the area was in the midst of war, and my dad survived what many other soldiers did not. I felt even closer to Dad having walked in his footsteps.

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While I was in Italy, I yearned to be able to ask Dad questions about his time there. I mourned the fact that Dad might not really understand that I had traveled to Italy in search of his memories. I grappled with fear that seeing him upon my return to caregiving for him would be gut-wrenching, knowing that in the past he would have been thrilled to hear about my adventure, and his reaction now was a wild card. I longed to relate with him around my trip, and I wasn’t sure it would be possible.

You’ll see in my video, embedded here, that his reaction filled my heart with joy. He was truly moved. We connected and he knew I cared and honored him. And I do — today, on Veterans Day, and every day. Thanks for your service, Dad.

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