As the Numbers of Our Nation’s Oldest War Veterans Decline, We Can Do More to Recognize Their Service

Marty Zuckerman and John Milton Belcher veterans at Atrium Village
John Milton Belcher (left) and Marty Zuckerman (right) at Atrium Village in Owings Mills. | Photo by Lindsay C. VanAsdalan

Marty Zuckerman and John Milton Belcher represent a generation of men and women whose presence is becoming increasingly rare.

“There are very, very few World War II veterans left … and there’s not too many left from Korea,” says Zuckerman, a seven-year U.S. Army veteran who served overseas by setting up a communication network during the Korean War.

He will be 93 on the anniversary of D-Day, and Belcher—a World War II Army veteran and Zuckerman’s fellow resident and dinner mate at Atrium Village, a Senior Lifestyle Community in Owings Mills—will be 100 in three years.

Both are among 25 residents honored at Atrium Village during May, Military Service Month, only a few weeks shy of Memorial Day.

In a special ceremony, veterans from all branches of U.S. military service received a commemorative pin, including three women, U.S. Marine veteran Carolyn Brown, Air Force and Vietnam War veteran Sallie Smith and 22-year Army veteran Helen Hall.

Three honorees—Belcher, Joseph Warzinski and David Rosenburg—served in World War II.

Brig. Gen. Edward H. Ballard, a decorated 30-year retired Army veteran and member of American Legion Post 122 in Owings Mills, addressed the Atrium community, observing that these honors don’t happen for veterans as often as they should.

“Most Americans profess to truly love our veterans—especially at events like this—and while their feelings are usually sincere, it is important to remember that veterans are defending us 365 days a year,” he says.

Zuckerman agrees that recognition is often fleeting.

Although the six-year resident has been part of other pinning ceremonies, and his Pikesville synagogue Chizuk Amuno held a special Sabbath celebration for veterans in November, day to day it’s a quick thank you and that’s it, he says.

Yet Americans continue to enjoy the security veterans provided, despite great sacrifices to them and their spouses—with career interruptions, more parental responsibility and frequent moves—and changes in schools and friends, as well as the uncertainty that mom or dad would come home for their children, Ballard continues.

“Our debt to these heroes can never ever be repaid,” he says, “but our gratitude and our respect must last forever.”

Veterans receive pins at Atrium Village celebration
Atrium Village, which recently underwent a $13 million renovation, supports its veterans at a special ceremony in May.

With the oldest American war veterans now in their 90s and beyond, the time to hear their stories in person is quickly dwindling.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, in 2021, of the oldest veterans who served in World War II, 234 die each day. Of the 16 million Americans who fought in this conflict, slightly more than 240,000 remain.

Belcher is one of them. He graduated high school at age 14 and was drafted as soon as he came of age.

Growing up near the coal mines of West Virginia, he knew he didn’t want this life. His father became an educator because he wanted to be somebody, Belcher says.

As his son, Belcher was raised to believe he had this potential, too.

He knew he was above the segregation and discrimination he was facing as a Black man, but “all that good I had to prove,” he adds.

Belcher studied at Columbia University and earned three doctorates in his lifetime. He saw military service as another way for him to grow in knowledge and life experience.

“That’s the way I was looking at life,” he says. “I was drinking up everything I could get my fingers on.”

Other Atrium veterans honored at the May ceremony also showed gratitude for their time in service.

They approached their recognition with levity, telling lighthearted military jokes—“do we have time for three items of military mirth?”—and with sentimentality—“I’ll take this pin, but what I really want is a hug.”

Atrium veteran pin ceremony 2022
Veterans living at Atrium Village, a Senior Living Community in Owings Mills, receive pins in a special ceremony in May.

In a uniting moment, National Guard veteran Irvin Eberlin sang a song he believed servicemen and women would remember—a lesser-known fourth verse to the national anthem.

“Oh thus be it ever, when free men shall stand

Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation.

Led with victory and peace, may the heaven-rescued land

Lay the power that hath made and reserved us a nation.

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just

And this be our motto: in God is our trust.

And The Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Ed Jackson, director of training and education for Post 122, says that when people see veterans wearing their pins proudly, they have the opportunity to give these men and women the recognition they deserve.

“They can’t possibly know the sacrifice that we have all put in, but they can acknowledge it,” he says.

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