3 Powerful Life Lessons from a World War II Veteran
My husband and his whole family stood vigil by a hospice bedside last week. It was an honor guard for a great man as he stepped out of this life and into another.
My father-in-law was a simple man, yet his life taught some profound lessons. A man a generation older than my own father, but whose eyes had a permanently youthful sparkle. A man who volunteered for World War II, yet was a man of peace. A man born on a poor farm and who raised four boys on a small salary, but was one of the richest men I knew.
Here are three of the main lessons on life I learned from Bill Feldhahn, that we all need to be reminded of today:
Lesson #1: Courage is a Choice
Bill Feldhahn was an ordinary young American growing up in extraordinary times. As we were losing hundreds of thousands of young men and women in the European and Pacific theatres, he was working the family farm. So he was safe from the draft with a farm deferment. But his older sister’s husband was not. In 1944, when his brother-in-law was drafted, Bill took his place. He convinced his sister’s husband to stay home with her and their new baby. He traded his farm deferment for one of the most dangerous job in the flying forces: a tail gunner.
Years later, I asked my father-in-law how he had found the courage to volunteer during the most dangerous period of the war. Looking surprised at the question, he smiled and shrugged. It wasn’t courage, he told me, “It was just a choice. That’s what you do for family.”
It doesn’t matter that you’re afraid, he was saying. What matters is stepping up and doing what you know you should, in spite of your fear.
Today, far beyond the boundaries of war and military service, that lesson applies every day. I see it as my 14-year-old son comes forward to confess that he broke an important rule, knowing he will have some significant consequences. I see as a man steps up and marries the mother of his child, choosing the path of honor. I see it in a woman I know who quit a job she loved in order to stay home to care for a special-needs daughter.
Lesson #2: A Promise is a Promise
My father in law was a vow-keeper. After the war, he married his beautiful bride Roberta and vowed to care for her in sickness and in health. And he kept that promise. For 65 years, he worked to provide for her. First, during his professional years, as a real estate agent. As a deeply involved father to four boys. As a supportive husband who cheered her on as she decided to become a full-time teacher in her fifties. And much later, as a full-time caregiver.
As my mother-in-law’s brain slowly betrayed her over her last fifteen years of life, he demonstrated that true love is not always a feeling – it is an action. He gently cared for his wife through an intense season of treatment for colon cancer. And in her last years, as her dementia and physical ailments made her unable to care for herself, he became her full-time caregiver, doing ever more intimate jobs, and declining outside help.
As his sons pressed him to bring in others to help share the load, he shook his head. “This is just what a man does for his wife,” he said.
I’m sure there were many times of private anguish at the slow loss of his wife, and private frustration at the challenges of caring for her. But it didn’t change his actions.
When times get tough, whether with a marriage, a job or any other commitment, his example shows me the powerful impact of living up to your promises – not begrudgingly, but with willing compassion and care.
Lesson #3: Sacrifice Can Be Joyful
I think what impacted me most about Jeff’s father was his willingness to sacrifice for others. Joyfully. Not just for his country, or his brother, or his wife through so many years, but for anyone in his life.
When my husband graduated from high school, he and two of his brothers (who were all older) decided to open a restaurant together. His dad – again – stepped up.
Bill and Roberta decided to go into business with their sons, investing their entire life savings into the family business. Not for financial gain – as anyone in the restaurant business can attest, there’s no money in it! – but for years of togetherness with their sons.
Over the decades, in various cities, the boys owned family diners and pizza places. Jeff’s dad was always there, morning to night, grilling burgers, delivering pizza, clearing dirty dishes, doing maintenance, and mentoring his grandkids as they waited tables after school. All with a smile on his face, and that signature twinkle in his eye.
The restaurants always just barely scraped by – but it didn’t matter. Bill knew he was unlikely to get his life savings back. And indeed, he didn’t. For him, it wasn’t about the money. It was about being with his boys. Investing in their lives. Enjoying the journey.
For him, it wasn’t a sacrifice. It was a delight.
More than anything, that is a lesson I need to be reminded of today. When I face trials that are nowhere near as difficult as those of my father-in-law, I am going to picture the twinkle in his eyes. His memory reminds me to not just get through life, but to enjoy it. Dive in with full intentionality. Don’t let it get past you.
Truly, 92 years was a long, full life. But it was still way too few years with Bill Feldhahn. Yet I also know that our loss is heaven’s gain. And I’m sure those who have gone before us are appreciating the twinkle in his eyes.