Never forget the human cost as the D-Day anniversary is marked

On June 6th, 2024, we mark the 80th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in Europe. While we rightfully commemorate this […]

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On June 6th, 2024, we mark the 80th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in Europe. While we rightfully commemorate this milestone as the beginning of the liberation of Europe, we must never forget the toll of human suffering as the price paid for victory: not just those who lost their lives, 4,415 in the first 24 hours, but also those whose lives were changed forever. A vast community of people returned with disabilities, lifelong physical and mental changes, to a world that was no longer accessible to them. 

As of 2023, the number of World War II veterans in the U.S. was estimated at 119,550 and few people living today remember the war. WW II began in 1939 when the Third Reich invaded Poland without any notice or provocation. Many did nothing, thinking the takeover would stop at Warsaw. It did not. The United States entered the war in 1941, first after the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan and then in Europe. We can’t forget because those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.  During WWII people with disabilities were targeted for what the Nazis called a euthanasia program that was separate from its racist and ethnic “eugenics.” Those with physical and mental disabilities did not measure up to the Nazi idea of a ‘master race’. Euthanasia, a Greek derived word meaning a good death, meant killing by gas chamber, injection, or starvation. About 200,000 people with disabilities were murdered between 1941-1945. 

At the same time, the United States excluded people considered “unfit” for service. Roughly 40 percent were rejected due to mental or physical conditions. But they were reconsidered for other jobs due to labor shortages. This included people with disabilities, women, people of color, and people who lived in the intersection of those identities. According to an article by Jade Ryerson, Consulting Historian with the Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education, with support from vocational rehabilitation training programs, both industrial and support jobs opened to people with congenital and acquired disabilities. Many of these jobs supported the war effort and involved considerable risk. Unlike civilians with disabilities, disabled veterans found it much easier to acquire jobs after the war. In addition to receiving military pensions, the GI Bill streamlined access to education and home ownership for veterans and their families. Civilian workers with disabilities were displaced and did not qualify for benefits. 

Moreover, as job expansion slowed down, people with disabilities often found themselves “last hired, first fired.” This led organizations like the American Federation of the Physically Handicapped and Blind Veterans Association to speak out for equal access to public transportation, education, and jobs. It took a few decades but resulted in the civil rights acts of the 1970s. 

While researching this topic, I recently visited the Minnesota’s Greatest Generation Exhibit at the Minnesota History Center. It follows the lives of people through the Great Depression, WWII and the Post War Baby Boom. It includes the opportunity for visitors to board the fuselage of a C-47 where patrons experience a multi- media re-recreation of a true and tragic combat jump story on D-Day. A veteran who is also a mental health professional introduced the program to our tour group. To say it was a jolt of reality would be an understatement. We came to understand the human cost and true horrors of war. We learned about the near disaster that occurred on D-Day and the sacrifices in life, limb and mind that were the result. We learned of the lifetime effects on many who serve in war. We learned about what is known as PTSD today, and the reasons behind the suicide rate among veterans. According to the American Psychiatric Association, veterans are 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than nonveterans. Reasons include high exposure to trauma, stress and burnout, isolation and loneliness, easy access and familiarity with guns, and difficulties reintegrating into civilian life. 

We still have a job to do. I am from Iowa where the state motto is “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.” When it comes to civil rights for people with disabilities, we must maintain the same spirit. 

General Dwight Eisenhower, who led the D-Day invasion, hated war. Years after the end of WWII, he gave a speech with the following sentiment, engraved in the marble wall at his Kansas gravesite: 

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense.” 

Note: Jane Larson is the proud daughter of a WW II veteran, a man who believed in civil discourse over conflict. Jane currently serves as president of the Access Press Ltd Board of Directors. 

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