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October 8, 2013

BEAM: The reluctant heroes

— A German prisoner of war camp couldn’t break Kenny Steward. Neither could the memories he kept hidden of that tragic time.

“It’s with you. It’s a memory. You don’t forget it,” Kenny said.

For 68 years after the war, the Utica native lived a humble existence as a family man. His injuries from the camp allowed him to meet a girl named Christine in the military hospital. Eventually, they would marry and have two girls.

New chapters opened, and old ones closed as Kenny’s life progressed the normal route. Cutting meat at the A&P supermarket paid the bills. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren would arrive and, then, after three decades of work, retirement came.

Travis Haire remembered stopping by his grandfather’s house while growing up. Stocked with food, the home proved a delight to a playing child. The Nazis had starved Kenny in that camp, so much so the 6-foot-tall man weighed only 85 pounds when liberated. Kenny vowed never to know hunger again. All the stored food was evidence of that.

Yet, while some stories were handed down, the man with the sweet smile and incredible wit kept most of his World War II experiences tucked away.

“He never shared with us as a family any more than that or any suffering that he went through,” said Haire in a previous interview. “He kept that pretty private from us. I think it was on purpose.”

Last Tuesday, Kenny Steward concluded his story on this earth. While at the Robley Rex VA Medical Center in Louisville, the Army veteran died at the age of 87.

Members of our greatest generation continue to leave this world at an alarming rate. According to the VA, more than 650 World War II veterans die in the United States every day. Of the 16 million service members who fought in the war, only 1.7 million survive, 28,000 of which live in Indiana.

Instead of battle, old age has claimed most of these lives. No amount of allies or strategies can stop the indiscriminate passing of time. Only in 2012 did Florence Green, the last surviving World War I veteran, die just two weeks shy of her 111th birthday. Like soldiers of World War I and other conflicts before them, our World War II vets and their amazing memories are next to be lost, most likely within the coming two decades.

While life’s unending cycle cannot be halted, we can save the legacy of our veterans by preserving their stories. Now more than ever, an effort must be made to gather these recollections and keep them safe for generations to come.

Southern Indiana is lucky to have the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library to help with this task. As one of the few local institutions that collect oral histories, the library will meet with veterans and record their experiences. These recollections will be added to others already preserved. If interested, contact the library’s Indiana History Room at 812-944-8464.

Another great resource to aid in the recording of our veterans’ memories is the organization called StoryCorps. Since 2003, the nonprofit group has gathered more than 50,000 interviews from 80,000 participants and archived the recordings at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress.

For those who would like to help preserve a vet’s legacy and submit it to StoryCorps, a section on “do-it-yourself interviews” is available at their website StoryCorps.org.

Toward the later years of his life, Kenny began to share his story with family, elementary schools and others. Earlier this year, thanks to his nephew Dick Jones, I was blessed to have sit-down with him and listen about his time in the POW camps.

Throughout, the man — who while in those prisons — scooped the frozen ground with his bare hands in order to bury his fallen countrymen refused to call himself a hero. The heroes never came home from the war, he said.

“Hero? Nah, I’m not a hero,” Kenny added. “I just did what, at the time, that they did — served their country.”

Good books, like great lives, always have a fitting conclusion. Sixty-eight years ago, a man returned from the atrocities of war. Last week, the same man left the VA hospital on a journey once again.

We can remember him as a friend, or a family man, or even a reluctant hero. But, for all the veterans who sacrificed so much, we do best to just simply remember.

— Amanda Beam is a Floyd County resident and Jeffersonville native. Contact her by email at adbeam47@aol.com

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