Robert S. White received a Bronze Star last month, during a short ceremony at the Hampton, Va., VA Medical Center. It came more than 70 years after he helped liberate Europe from the Nazis.
White didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he was stunned by the attention — a cake, well-wishers, TV cameras, even a congressman.
White has been married for 72 years and had five children. He worked as a sheet metal mechanic at Newport News Shipbuilding for nearly four decades.
He’s run nine marathons. He is 94 years old and still jogs his usual 3 miles.
The secret to longevity? Clean living and a steady diet of “beans, greens and sweet potatoes,” he said.
The Bronze Star is awarded to any person “who, after Dec. 6, 1941, while serving in any capacity with the Armed Forces of the United States, distinguishes himself or herself by heroic or meritorious achievement or service.” White hadn’t exactly been sitting around waiting.
In fact, he only realized his eligibility in recent years. With the help of friends at the Hampton VA, the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 13 of York County, and Rep. Scott Taylor, the wheels went into motion.
“I never dreamed it was going to be this big,” White said, looking around the room. “It’s a shock to me.”
Army Pvt. 1st Class White fought across Northern Europe in 1944 and 1945 with the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He served as a communications lineman.
The unit was involved in climactic offensives that heralded the beginning of the end of World War II, including the Battle of the Bulge.
A native of Leland, N.C., White saw the worst of the Nazi war machine, helping to liberate a forced labor camp near Essen, Germany.
He came upon starving prisoners and remembers a concrete wall pockmarked with bullet holes “where they mowed them down.”
He served from 1943 to 1946 and moved to Hampton Roads, Va., in 1951.
At the Hampton VA, White belongs to a group of World War II and Korean War veterans who talk about post-traumatic stress disorder.
Carlson Pendleton, a clinical therapist and Vietnam War veteran, facilitates the group. He didn’t talk about White’s case specifically but said it can be difficult for veterans to seek help.
The tough-it-out attitude in the armed forces can discourage some people from coming forward.
“That’s probably the worse advice to give anybody,” Pendleton said. “It’s the same thing with any kind of emotional condition. If you deny it, it doesn’t go anywhere. You have to confront it.”
Rep. Taylor said he jumped at the chance to assist when his office learned of White’s case. He credited Pendleton, along with Terry Bohlinger, commander and chapter service office of DAV Chapter 13, with moving things forward.
Bohlinger said the impetus was a newspaper article noting that those who earned the Combat Infantry Badge or Combat Medical Badge during World War II could also receive a Bronze Star.
White had earned the Combat Infantry Badge. From there, it was a matter of applying. Within a few weeks, the medal arrived in Taylor’s office, Bohlinger said.
White’s service earned praise from J. Ronald Johnson, Hampton VA Medical Center director.
“Every day, frankly, even though we don’t know it,” Johnson said, “we have heroes in our midst.”