a salute of gratitude to our veterans
Take a moment to consider what you’re doing right now. Maybe you’re having lunch or reading a book. Perhaps you’re getting ready to go for a walk with a friend or watch your favorite movie for the tenth time. Now take a moment to consider what our troops might be doing. They too may be eating lunch or walking, but their experience is very different from your own. Our servicemen and women get up every morning and choose to defend our freedom. They choose to defend human beings they’ve never met and represent the United States on the global stage. It’s quite easy to go through life taking the privilege of freedom for granted. We forget that our freedom is only guaranteed because of the men and women who have volunteered to serve. This month, take a moment to be grateful for not just the people in your life, but also for the troops you’ve never met who defend this country, and your freedom regardless.
We had the opportunity to sit down with three Veterans to hear their stories and perspectives on their time in service. Paul Panagrosso, a World War II POW, Gary Gabriel, a post-Vietnam Navy Veteran, and David Evans, a former Marine who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan during the Global War on Terror. We encourage everyone this month to remember those who have served and fallen, those who have served, and those who continue to defend our country at this very moment.
Paul Panagrosso was drafted into the United States Army in January 1944. He was to complete infantry training in Florida before being reassigned in May 1944. At first, it was decided he would be joining the hundreds of men storming the beaches at Normandy until a last-minute change in orders was issued. Paul was reassigned to Indiana to complete further training before heading to Danbury, England on the RMS Aquitania. Come November, Paul was put on another ship that was headed to France. His squad was assigned to relieve the second division army at a calm, quiet post. Being fresh out of training, this came as a relief to Paul and his buddies who had zero war experience. It was made clear, however, that the universe had different plans for these men. The war would soon reach a turning point at the Battle of the Bulge, Adolf Hitler’s last major offensive against the Western Front. On the morning of December 16th, 1944, Paul woke to the explosions of German bombs littering the ground around him. He recalls, “They bombed the hell out of us.” He stayed hidden in his foxhole with a Sergeant and six other Soldiers until about 5 p.m. that night. When the bombs stopped, the shovels started. German soldiers knew there were Americans hiding underground.
Paul Panagrosso, 1944
“About thirty minutes into their digging, my Sergeant stood up and said, ‘We either stay here and die, or we can surrender.’” [They decided it was time to exit their bunker, put hands in the air, and await their fate.] “When we got out of the bunker, there were Germans everywhere. An officer comes over to me and asks me for my name. ‘Panagrosso,’ I answered. ‘You’re Italian, why are you fighting us?’ the officer asks me. I told him, ‘I’m an American.’”
Paul was named an American prisoner of war and separated from his squad to be interrogated and placed in temporary shelter. He had been with the same group of men since traveling overseas months prior and would never hear from them again. Even after the war, Paul could never find a point of contact for any of them. With no overcoat or proper snowshoes, Paul and hundreds of other Americans were forced to march through the coldest and snowiest winter Germany had on record. After four days they reached their destination, Prison Camp 11A. All prisoners were stripped down and examined by medical staff to be placed in categories according to their capabilities. Rations were watery soup served in their combat helmets and a piece of bread ¼ inch thick. Paul lost somewhere between 30 and 40 lbs during this time. Every day around noon a glimmer of hope would appear in the sky; American B17 planes flying over their camp pushing the enemy line farther and farther back. Paul recalls, “Cheers and hollers would erupt around noon each day, and the Germans hated us for doing it.”
After a few months, Paul was moved to Camp 3A. He was transported via boxcar with hundreds of other men. The journey took two-days with no stops and no food or water. When he arrived, he met Dean Miller, a man who would prove to be a great friend to him during this time. Dean would sneak into compounds that were housing prisoners from other nations and barter for bread. After one-month, Paul was moved to another camp that had been used as a railroad yard. He was forced to unload hundreds of railroad ties from the trains coming in and out of the camp. The German guards demanded that each prisoner carry one tie off the train at a time, a task that was nearly impossible for men who now weighed close to under 100 lbs.
For weeks, Paul and his fellow prisoners transported ties on and off the railroad cars while American troops began to close in on enemy lines. Knowing U.S. troops were moving closer every day, the German Army moved prisoners further north to avoid detection. At this point, Paul could no longer walk due to frostbitten feet and was put on a transport cart with two other GI’s. They made their way to a small town where Paul managed to convince German Sergeants to stay put, as he and many others could not walk on their bare feet any longer. When America began to bomb the surrounding area Paul was put in the basement of a civilian home with women, children, and two German guards. A few hours into the raid, the hatch door opened to a German soldier warning the occupants to keep quiet, the American’s were closing in. Not knowing if that damp, dingy basement would be the last thing he saw, Paul began to come to terms with the idea that he may spend his final hours in the damp, dingy basement, a world away from home. And then, a miracle happened.
The hatch door opened again, this time an American voice yelled, “Who’s down there?” Paul recounts in his interview, “Those were the best words I could hear.” He made his way out of the basement as quickly as he could, only to look back and see the two German guards hastily donning civilian clothing. Once outside the basement, he was given food and water before getting on a plane headed to France. He was placed in Camp Lucky Strike, where he was given new clothes and the first shower he had had in four-months. He was loaded with lice and bed bugs. Paul stayed in France for about a week before getting on a Navy ship that was headed to New Jersey. The ship docked on Mother’s Day, finally allowing Paul to call his family and let them know he was alive.
Paul Panagrosso, 2021
After a well-deserved, thirty-day furlough, Paul went to Lake Placid to be reassigned. His destination: Japan. Thankfully, these orders were redacted once it was realized Paul had been a POW in Germany. He was sent to Camp Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts before being honorably discharged in December 1945. The government paid for him to attend two-years of Business College, however, Paul discovered he enjoyed the business of retailing far more and stuck with it for the rest of his career. He met his wife at the King Cole store on Park Avenue in Bridgeport, CT when he was the store manager. They went on to have four children; two daughters, and two sons. Paul is currently residing in Northern Connecticut and celebrated his 96th birthday in July 2021.
A young New York City boy with a passion for adventure and adrenaline decides to join the Navy after high school in January 1974. His name is Gary Gabriel. Inspired by his father, Russell Gabriel’s time in the Navy during World War II, the branch had a soft spot for him. Russell had been part of the invasion of Normandy Beach, D-Day, and while Gary’s time would look quite different serving in peacetime, he was excited at the prospect of traveling and learning new skills. In addition to the sentiment attached to his father’s experience, Gary was never a great student and college wasn’t an option for him, all the more reason to enlist.
To get into a trade, he had to learn one first and had the intention of doing so in the service. Going into the military in a post-Vietnam era came with judgment from some peers and friends, but a sense of pride still echoed from those closest to Gary. He was the only one out of his friend group who decided to enlist, and they were excited to be able to say they knew a military man. Gary enlisted one-month after graduating high school and boarded a plane for the first time in his life in February 1974. He was off to attend boot camp in Orlando, Florida. He told his recruiter he wanted to be a heavy equipment operator, and they promised him they’d try to place him where he’d be happy. On the last day of boot camp, everyone gathered around to receive their next assignments. “Gabriel, you’re going to Davisville, Rhode Island to learn how to be a plumber.”
Gary Gabriel, 1974
Not quite what he was hoping for, Gary headed for Rhode Island to be part of the Class Of ‘74 United States Naval Construction Battalion, better known as the Navy Seabees. Gary completed training in the Fall of 1974 and graduated as a Utilitiesman. His next assignment would be in Adak, Alaska. He was part of the Public Works Department on the Adak base, and tended to boilers, barracks housing, and anything else that needed to be repaired or replaced. After one-year in Alaska, Gary was sent to Washington state to be a part of Seabee Unit 417. The unit was made up of plumbers, steelworkers, equipment operators, etc., and he stayed there for two-and-a-half years. His unit completed jobs similar to those done in Alaska, and built a gas station from the ground up for the base’s use. When Gary’s four-years were up, he decided it was time to leave the service and look for work at home. He returned to the Bronx, NY, and attempted to find a job that would allow him to use his handyman skills. Returning home to a state like New York didn’t always come with a pat on the back, or a “Thank you for your service.” When he arrived home after being honorably discharged, he crossed paths with a couple leaving his family’s apartment building. The man looked at Gary, dressed in his Whites, and asked him if he drove an ice cream truck.
Gary Gabriel, 2018
At the time, there weren’t many jobs available in the utility field, and the test to be part of the Plumbers Union wasn’t being offered due to a lack of job placements. Finally, a Plumber's Apprentice position opened up in Flushing, Queens at a company called Mccready and Rice. Grateful to have found a job, Gary chose to swallow the pride of knowing he was overly qualified for it. After this, he moved on to be a Truck Checker Supervisor at Coca-Cola Inc., and worked his way up to eventually manage two of their warehouses. He met his wife, Katherine, and moved to Connecticut with their two-children. In 1996 Gary left Coca-Cola and worked a few odd-jobs before finding a permanent position at Good Directions Inc. as a Warehouse Manager. He’s been with the company for 22-years. Gary currently resides in Southern Connecticut.
David Evans joined the Marines after graduating from high school in 2002. This decision crystalized after he watched the second plane crash into the World Trade Center on 9/11 live on television. He chose the Marines because they represented the greatest challenge, they had the hardest boot camp, and seemed far more exotic from his perspective in Northern Louisiana, compared to Army and Navy guys. The uniforms didn’t hurt either. After graduating from boot camp and infantry school, he deployed to Okinawa, Japan with 2nd Battalion 6th Marines. After returning to Camp Lejeune in 2004, he volunteered for reconnaissance training, followed by survival school, airborne (where he met his future wife), and then to his new unit, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion. In 2006, Dave’s unit deployed to Iraq. He recalls, “The thing about Iraq was, you never had a clear picture of your enemy.”
Dave and his comrades dealt with this ambiguity for six months, from September 2006 to April 2007. Upon his return, he rotated to a new unit, First Marines Special Operations Battalion (now designated 1st Marine Raider Battalion), and made ready for another deployment to Afghanistan. By 2008, the Taliban resurgence had begun. Serving as an Element Leader, his team’s focus was on close-quarters battle. These were skills and tactics that focused on urban warfare, shooting inside a house, and raids. Afghanistan proved to be just as ambiguous as Iraq: “The Taliban usually wouldn’t engage with us because they knew who we were.”
Dave Evans, 2008
Dave’s unit deployed to southwestern Afghanistan, in Helmand and Nimroz province through the latter half of 2008. While patrolling these arid regions filled with dried river beds and rocky fields, Dave found himself continually in the lead vehicle of the patrol. Identifying potential IEDs fell to him, his driver, and gunner. His decisions were made knowing that his life, that of his vehicle crew, and the lives of the twenty or so others in the patrol might be impacted. After five months in Afghanistan Dave returned to California and was offered a position as an instructor which he gladly took after being deployed twice. He became an instructor for Marine Special Operations Assessment and Selection, the initial stage of training for Marines trying to join special operations. Finally in 2011, after 8 ½ years of service, Dave decided to leave the military. But he still holds what he learned close to his heart and mind:
“Everything I did informs who I am. If I’m assertive it’s because of my time in the Marines. When I’m critically thinking or have a desire to understand and think through problems, it’s because of my time in the Marines.”
When Dave left the Marines he started college with far more discipline than he had in 2002 when he joined. He discovered he was really good at history and a fairly good writer and decided to pursue a career in academia. Not unlike his decision to go recon, he pursued a PhD in history, which came from a desire to reach the highest level of his profession. His public speaking skills were already in good practice from being an Assessment and Selection instructor.
Dave Evans, 2008
He received his undergraduate and master’s degree in history at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and then moved to the University of Connecticut for his Ph.D. Today, he teaches a variety of courses covering US history generally and US military history as he continues to work towards his newest rank: Doctor of Philosophy.
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