Mel Garten is one of the most decorated soldiers in American history and he has the medals to prove it.
While serving 30 years and in three wars, Col. Garten was awarded five Purple Hearts, four Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars, 20 ribbons, and many more honors. One of his most remarkable exploits was a rescue mission in World War II in which he helped to free 2,500 U.S. POWs in a Japanese labor camp.
Garten even fought to stay in the Army after he was declared 100 percent disabled.
But he says it is his wife Ruth who really deserves a medal.
“She’s the one who deserves a Purple Heart,” Garten said. “She got five telegrams telling her that her husband had been wounded.”
The last wound was the worst. While serving in Vietnam, Garten suffered an injury so severe that it cost him his left leg and put him in a coma for three weeks. Ruth waited in Walter Reed Hospital the whole time.
“He was a soldier and I was his wife,” Ruth Garten said. “There were things going on in the world and I was part of it.”
Mel and Ruth Garten exemplify why Veterans Day on Wednesday will be an especially special day at Lake Oswego’s Stafford Retirement Community. There are 20 veterans in the building, and many of them are simply awesome.
“Some of these guys make me feel like an impostor,” said George Porter, himself a veteran of the Korean War.
Like Ken Yaguchi of the famed 442nd Brigade, an all-Japanese unit in Europe that became the most decorated American outfit in World War II. One of his fellow soldiers was Nobaru Takashima. They never met in Europe, but they’ve since become friends at The Stafford.
The Stafford regiment doesn’t lack for high rank, like Gen. James Thayer, who earned many medals with the 14th Infantry in Europe, and Bill Eby, who rose through the ranks to become a rear admiral and commander of all the submarine fleets in the Atlantic.
It’s a distinguished group, one that is extremely proud of its service to this nation. Some of it came under the most difficult circumstances imaginable.
“I was 19 years old and living in a concentration camp in Idaho,” Yaguchi said. “It wasn’t an internment camp, it was a concentration camp. It was surrounded by a barbed wire fence and there were machine guns everywhere.”
But when it came time to serve, Yaguchi was one of the first to volunteer.
“I wanted to serve my country and prove I was as good a soldier as anyone else.”
When he returned back to the USA after the war, Yaguchi believed he proven his point. Except for one instance.
“The only time I experienced discrimination was when I went into a barber shop and the barber refused to cut my hair,” he said. “Later he had to move to another town. All the guys I knew found out what he had done, so they refused to go into his shop anymore.”
The Stafford veterans have plenty of good stories to swap, although Yaguchi says, “We don’t socialize as veterans. We just socialize.”
Still, The Stafford will be honoring all of its veterans on Nov. 11 at 2 p.m. School children will sing, flags will fly, poems will be read. To these old soldiers, the bond that day will feel especially strong.
“All men and women should feel proud they were able to serve,” Yaguchi said. “I commend what they did, and what we’re still doing.”
He added, “The older I get, the more I appreciate Veterans Day. It means more to me every year.”