Like so many of his fellow comrades, my grandfather, Paul Kiritsy, did not realize what he was about to get involved in when he enlisted in the armed forces during World War II. Young and naïve, his eagerness to support his country outweighed any possible consequence, as it did with all those other brave soldiers.
At the age of 18, my grandfather joined the Navy, and once he had completed basic training, he was sent to the island of Okinawa. It was late in the war and, not long after he arrived on the recently invaded island, the US dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. When the second one followed on Nagasaki, the war was effectively over.
I am not sure exactly what my grandfather saw during his time in the Pacific: the loss of life, the wounded he tended to with his novice medical skills, the sacrifice, the patriotism, and the freedom. My grandmother has shown me a picture of him in his military uniform, barely old enough to cast a vote yet ready to lay his life on the line and potentially take others in the name of freedom, democracy, and the American Dream. However, pictures do not describe the true experience of war.
Upon his return, my grandfather combined his creative mind with his unparalleled people skills to succeed as a businessman and entrepreneur. A proud father of five and a loving husband with a lucrative business at his control, he was on top of the world after not even knowing if that same world would have existed a decade or so prior. And that’s when it all came crashing down, like a wave on the coast of Okinawa so powerful one can barely escape its force.
On a cold December night in 1973, three decades removed from World War II with that experience having become a distant memory amidst the joys of his family life, an electrical fire engulfed his home while his family slept. Standing there in the middle of the night looking at the charred property, that loss was paled to a greater and incomprehensible loss; his third child died at the tender age of 16 that night. He lost his daughter, his children lost their sister, I lost an aunt I would never meet, the world lost a beautiful person.
His family grieved; his business floundered; his will to live and to enjoy life wavered. It took many years for him to overcome that battle, one that probably still persists deep inside a hurting heart and soul, for a parent’s love for a child never ceases. Years later the wound of that battle remained, but the love and zest for life returned in the happiness my grandfather has enjoyed as his family grew.
Despite any hardships he had endured, whether it was World War II or other personal wars of emotions, my grandfather has always exhibited a passion for life, one tied to the American Dream. He marveled at the innovations of mankind, the good that could come from camaraderie and collaboration, the beauty of life and the world around us. I sat next to him and he told me of the endless orange groves and the sunshine in Florida which he, his wife, and his first child (my father) saw only a few years after World War II. He drew out diagrams of buildings that left him in utter amazement, engineering feats that he challenged me to one day surpass. We looked at the Twin Towers, the signature of that incredible Manhattan skyline, unaware that an attack on those very buildings would prompt more wars, more loss of life in the defense of freedom, and more veterans that would lead their own lives in the aftermath.
Today my grandfather is fighting a different battle: age. Incredible heart, mind, and soul are accompanied by a body that does not want to completely cooperate. Each day he makes strides to walk but he has been stuck in a rehab center for several months, yearning for home and his family as he tries to regain the strength to walk. He takes those steps, unsure if his body will support him and seemingly learning how to walk as if he were only months removed from the womb, frustrated and now somewhat hopeless. The cycle of life is evident, for better or worse.
Yet when I go see him today, his eyes will tear up with love, as they do when any member of his family comes to visit. All the battles and wounds he has endured will never take his beautiful heart and spirit. It is that undying spark of life that defines him. It is that passion that sent him to Okinawa to defend freedom and the American Dream, and he is happy knowing he played his role in allowing us to pursue our dreams in a free world.
An 88 year old husband, father, and grandfather who has experienced more than I could ever imagine, today I honor a veteran and a hero in every sense of the word. Thank you, Pop.
To all our veterans, thank you for your service and incredible patriotism. We live in a free and better world because of you.