When he was told he had only weeks to live, his response was telling. He was calm and at peace. At 83, he told his children he'd lived much longer than he expected.
He fought in World War II, after all — the "big one" as he called it. He described the terror he felt wading onto the beaches of Sicily as gunners tried to mow him down. While driving a munitions truck along the sand one day, a German fighter pilot targeted him. He jumped behind his .50-caliber machine gun and began firing at the German. He hit the plane — he saw its window shatter — but the German managed to release his payload.
The bomb was headed right at him. When it detonated, he knew, it would ignite the munitions he was hauling. The explosion would be spectacular. He didn't panic — didn't yell or scream. He thought only of his mother — the agony she would know when she learned her son had died in battle.
But the bomb was a dud. Recounting the story years later, he laughed at how it soaked him when it hit the surf. He laughed at how he'd survived his first scrape with death.
He survived three other invasions. In one, he took shrapnel to the back of his knee. He plucked out the hot metal and kept moving. On the way to another, a truck mount broke. The cannon the truck had been towing thrust backward, pinning his knee against a hillside, crushing it. That injury would nag him the rest of his life, but on that day he continued to move along.
At one point during the war, he was put in charge of a prison camp. Escape attempts were common. German prisoners routinely slit the throats of their captors in the process. But he'd treated his prisoners with dignity — even offering them cigarettes. They were all in the same boat, after all, just happy to be alive. While off-duty and sleeping one night, one German escaped. The German chose to treat him with dignity, too, sparing his life.
After cheating death during the war, he did what many GI's did. He dove head first into life. He resumed work as a carpenter, while studying engineering at night. He married, bought a home, started a family (his legacy includes four children, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren).
In time, he rose through the ranks in his union, the Carpenter's District Council of Western Pennsylvania. He became its leader, improving working conditions and pay. He established pension funds. He fought for the dignity of thousands of tradesmen.
He won the respect of many in the process. He befriended business leaders, congressmen and senators. He judged men by their actions (as a labor leader in the 1970's, he boldly endorsed a Republican candidate, H. John Heinz, something not common in those days). He supported charities and served on several boards.
Like so many World War II veterans, he never spoke much about his experiences and accomplishments. It wasn't until he died that the remarkable details of his life began to fully emerge.
His name was Robert P. Argentine. Like so many of the great veterans who served their country, he left the world a much better place than he'd found it.
It saddens me that so many great men from his generation are passing on, as Mr. Argentine did last year. But it fills me with hope to know that his spirit is alive and well with so many young men and women who are in harm's way right now. Though our country is divided over our current conflicts, there should be no confusion about the men and women who serve — no confusion over those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
We must honor them this Memorial Day.
While we're at it, let's pray that the rest of them make it home safely, so that they may continue in their spirit of service.
Just as Mr. Argentine did.