Lest We Forget: D-Day June 6, 1944 – My Father Was There

June 6, 1944 D-Day. Credit: National Archives

My dad was in the U.S. Navy and a “motor mac” (motor machinist mate) on a landing craft delivering troops to the beaches during the first two days of the invasion.

Robert J. O’Brien never told his family, especially his daughters, about that D-Day. That is, until I married a Navy veteran.

Robert Joseph O’Brien as a young sailor. The red stripe on his uniform indicates he’s part of the engineering department.

My dad shared a few of his memories with my husband. That’s how I learned he was there on the beaches of Normandy. Toward the end of his life, my dad agreed to sit down with me so I could record his thoughts.

He was a man of few words who could say more with a look, a smile or a nod.

He was even more so when talking about WWII. His description was sparse – except for his admiration for the pilots and paratroopers who blackened the sky above his craft. And for the men he delivered to the shores of Normandy.

He saw no heroism – no extraordinary human effort in what he did. In fact, his favorite phrase was “I was just doing my job.”

So, today I pay tribute to all who were there and did their job during such a pivotal moment in history.

And a daughter’s love for a special dad who after two days of facing combat was assigned to the burial detail on the beach – the hardest job of all – that he did with dignity and respect toward the fallen.

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Retired Admiral Kicks-Off USF Veterans Week

U.S. Department of State spokesperson John Kirby, who retired as a Rear Admiral in May 2015. Photo courtesy U.S. State Department.

U.S. Department of State spokesperson John Kirby, who retired as a Rear Admiral in May 2015. Photo courtesy U.S. State Department.

Retired Rear Admiral John Kirby is featured at two free, public events today at the University of South Florida Tampa Campus.

The current spokesperson for the Department of State, Kirby, is the keynote speaker at the USF Veterans Day Ceremony at 10 a.m. in the Marshall Student Center Ballroom A.

Later at 1 pm, Kirby will be part of a presentation, “U.S. Foreign Policy in a Turbulent World,” on campus at the Patel Center for Global Solutions, Room 138.

Kirby is a former chief spokesman for the Department of Defense and former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, a USF alumnus and St. Petersburg native. He retired from the Navy in May 2015.

Other events for USF’s Veterans Week are scheduled to honor the nearly 2,000 veterans and their family members attending USF.

On Wednesday, Nov. 4 from 11 am to 12:30 pm is the 6th Annual Chili Cook-Off at the Marshall Center Amphitheater. USF departments compete to be named for the top chili recipe. Free samples of chili are sampled by attendees who vote for their favorites.

A Salute to Service Football Game, USF vs. Temple, is scheduled Nov. 14 at Raymond James Stadium. Active duty military and veterans will be recognized during a presentation at the game.

Naming the chili is half the fun of participating in 2013 Annual USF Office of Veterans Services Chili Cook-Off. Photo courtesy of OVS.

Naming the chili is half the fun of participating in 2013 Annual USF Office of Veterans Services Chili Cook-Off. Photo courtesy of OVS.

WWII Vet’s Mustard Gas Claim Gets A New Review From VA

Navy veteran John Tedesco holds up a newspaper article from 1991 when he and several buddies from the Great Lakes Naval Training Station filed claims for VA benefits related to their mustard gas exposure.

Navy veteran John Tedesco holds up a newspaper article from 1991 when he and several buddies from the Great Lakes Naval Training Station filed claims for VA benefits related to their mustard gas exposure.

More than 70 years after being exposed to mustard gas at boot camp – a World War II veteran’s claim for VA benefits is being reconsidered.

It was not until 1991 that the Department of Defense declassified information on its mustard gas experiments using U.S. soldiers and sailors in training.

Veteran John Tedesco was exposed to mustard gas in January 1944 at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station along with some of his buddies from his hometown of Erie, PA.

Navy veteran John Tedesco while serving during WWII. A photo of Joan, his future wife, is tucked into the frame.

Navy veteran John Tedesco while serving during WWII. A photo of Joan, his future wife, is tucked into the frame.

Joan and John Tedesco married more than 67 years.

Joan and John Tedesco married more than 67 years.

So, when the testing became public, Tedesco and his friends from boot camp went down to their local veterans’ office and filed VA claims.

“They were all kind of sick too,” said Tedesco, who has asthma and says he’s had breathing problems ever since he enlisted at age 17. “We had to go up to the VA and get tested. It took two days and I never heard anything from that. That was the first time we tried to get something.”

Tedesco would try again with more evidence – a copy of a letter written home about the mustard gas tests by a friend in the same company at Great Lakes. But that claim was denied too.

“I’ve been turned down every time I’ve tried. Even though when I got that letter and it said in there we were mustard gassed, they still turned me down,” Tedesco said. “So then, I said the heck with it.”

He wasn’t the only veteran to disillusioned after being exposed to mustard gas and denied benefits.

“Big promises were made to these men by the federal government decades ago,” said Caitlin Dickerson, a reporter with the NPR Investigations Desk. “And it was very clear that those promises weren’t upheld. And that there wasn’t a whole lot of time left to tell their stories.”

A copy of the 1944 letter that mentions the company's mustard gas testing at Great Lakes Naval Training Station.

A copy of the 1944 letter that mentions the company’s mustard gas testing at Great Lakes Naval Training Station.

Dickerson spent months digging through documents and the 1991 congressional testimony when those promises were made to care for the thousands of WWII veterans exposed to mustard gas by their own government.

And that NPR investigation has refocused attention on veterans who were exposed but did not receive VA benefits.

It’s hard finding evidence because the mustard gas experiments were kept secret for almost a half century after WWII ended. But Dickerson said the vets could be helped by a ruling in 2006 that allows a veteran’s testimony to serve as evidence.

A veteran has to prove that they were injury in the military, that their disability or illness is service related and still affecting them today.

Dickerson said the VA is now handling all mustard gas claims through one office.

“These mustard gas claims are very specific because, again, they in many cases, they lack that essential evidence. And they’re more nuanced,” Dickerson said.

John Tedesco's wall of memorabilia from his WWII service in the Pacific.

John Tedesco’s wall of memorabilia from his WWII service in the Pacific.

Several members of congress responded to the NPR series.

Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) is one of a dozen senators who wrote the VA Secretary requesting that the VA immediately contact exposed veterans and review all pending and denied mustard gas claims.

“They didn’t have an option to say no just like the soldiers in Vietnam who were exposed to Agent Orange didn’t have an option to say no,” Nelson said. “There’s an obligation of the United States government to take care of our veterans.”

By mid-July, Tedesco had received a VA letter offering to review his denied claim. The 88-year-old retired carpenter and contractor filled out the VA form again requesting benefits for his mustard gas exposure from 71 years ago.

You can read Sen. Nelson’s full letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald here.

Help Promised to WWII Vets Subjected To Mustard Gas Tests

John and Joan Tedesco stand before a wall filled with World War II memorabilia including John's service photograph.

John and Joan Tedesco stand before a wall filled with World War II memorabilia including John’s service photograph.

This week – NPR revealed that 60,000 World War II veterans were exposed to mustard gas while training in the U.S. and some are currently living in the Tampa Bay region.

The NPR investigation found that the Department of Veterans Affairs failed to keep its promise to help any of the mustard gas veterans who had permanent injuries. After the NPR investigation, the VA is again pledging to reach out to ensure exposed veterans are getting the benefits they’ve earned.

And the vice-chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, has called for a hearing and offered his assistance to one of his constituents, John Tedesco of Pasco County.

John Tedesco as a  US Navy Seaman First Class in WWII - notice the photo of Joan tucked into the left corner.

John Tedesco as a US Navy Seaman First Class in WWII – notice the photo of Joan tucked into the left corner.

Tedesco said he was part of the Navy’s mustard gas experiments conducted at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in early 1944. He was 17 years old.

“We really didn’t know what was going on. We were young,” Tedesco said. “We got all kinds of shots. But I figured it was just normal, you know, routine.”

Now 88 years old, Tedesco doesn’t remember specifics of the mustard gas test, he does remember being checked by doctors and corpsmen at noon each day after the test for more than a week.

Some of his buddies from Company 92 at Great Lakes were able to give detailed accounts in a 1991 Erie, Pennsylvania newspaper article. It was published shortly after the U.S. Department of Defense declassified the mustard gas experiments.

“When I was back in Erie and I met some of the fellas, they said they were going to go put a claim in because they were all kind of sick too,” Tedesco said adding that his group went to the local veterans affairs office together to fill out paperwork and then to the VA for two days of tests. He said his claim was denied.

John Tedesco holds up the 1991 newspaper article that details how he and some of his friends from Erie, PA were used for mustard gas experiments while at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1944.

John Tedesco holds up the 1991 newspaper article that details how he and some of his friends from Erie, PA were used for mustard gas experiments while at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1944.

Tedesco said he developed breathing problems shortly after joining the Navy. He got out in May 1946 but didn’t go to the VA about his health issues until 1991 – more than four decades later.

“I was a carpenter and I was a builder, a small builder and I did that up until I quit,” Tedesco said. He retired at age 57. “You know I couldn’t stand – like if they’d be bulldozing on the job and making dust, I’d have to go home because I’d get sick. If they’d paint, I’d have to go home. Smells and that, they bother (me), my wife don’t wear perfume or anything because it bothers me.”

A photo of Joan and John Tedesco's wedding in October 1947.

A photo of Joan and John Tedesco’s wedding in October 1947.

His wife of 67 years, Joan Tedesco, said her husband’s health problems were really bad when they lived in California in the 1960s.

“I used to rush him to the hospital all the time, he couldn’t breathe. Here they found out he was allergic to the redwood,” said Joan Tedesco. “We just loved it out there but there was no way we could stay, so we ended going back to Erie.”

Their son, Dr. John Tedesco, is a family physician practicing in Wesley Chapel. He also has vivid memories of when they lived in California.

“My father was in construction. They said he was having allergy problems but what it was it was asthma,” Dr. Tedesco said.

“His breathing was absolutely horrible. One time they had to call paramedics to come to the house because he couldn’t breathe and I remember them doing an intra-cardiac epinephrine shot,” Dr. Tedesco said. “As a little kid watching somebody stick a big needle into your father’s chest while he was lying on the ground because he can’t breathe, I’ll never forget that.”

A high school yearbook photo of John Tedesco on the golf team when he was in eleventh grade. His health issues limited his ability to play sports with his children.

A high school yearbook photo of John Tedesco on the golf team when he was in eleventh grade. His health issues limited his ability to play sports with his children.

He said his dad’s breathing problems prevented him from even simple joys like playing sports with his children.

Dr. Tedesco believes his father’s asthma is not due to allergies but instead related to his mustard gas exposure. He even wrote a letter to the VA to help his father file another mustard gas claim – that too was rejected.

After a while, the World War II veteran who spent 21 months in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea just gave up.

“You know, I feel they should have done something and they didn’t do anything,” Tedesco said.”We tried. They turned me down so many times I figured just let it go.”

Hearing of Tedesco’s plight, his member of congress, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, promised to help.

“We’re going to reach out to him and if he gives me permission to advocate on his behalf, I certainly will,” Bilirakis said.

The vice-chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs, told NPR he’s working on bringing in VA officials to testify, and has already requested a hearing.

Knowing what he knows now — Tedesco says he’d volunteer to serve today if asked.

“It’s a good country. Yes, I would,” Tedesco said. “It’s the best country in the world.”

 

 

World War II Vet Says VA Denied His Mustard Gas Claim

World War II Navy veteran John Tedesco holds up a newspaper article that details when he and several Navy buddies from his basic training filed VA claims in 1991 after the mustard gas testing they were subjected to was declassified.

World War II Navy veteran John Tedesco holds up a newspaper article that details when he and several Navy buddies also exposed to mustard gas filed VA claims in 1991 after the testing was declassified.

This week, NPR has revealed that the U.S. military conducted chemical weapons experiments on American soldiers and sailors during World War II.

It also found the Veterans Administration did little to help the thousands of veterans exposed to mustard gas.

John Tedesco, 88, is a Tampa Bay area veteran who said he was exposed to mustard gas in basic training — before he shipped out to the Pacific in 1944.

Like many who enlisted during World War II, Tedesco was young when he signed up for  the Navy in November 1943. It was less than a month after he turned 17 years old.

John Tedesco while serving in the Navy during WWII. In the left corner, a photograph of his then girlfriend, now, wife of 67 years.

John Tedesco while serving in the Navy during WWII. In the left corner, a photograph of his then girlfriend, now, wife of 67 years.

By January 1945,  Tedesco and several friends from Erie, Pennsylvania were in boot camp together at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station just north of Chicago.

That’s where Tedesco said he and a couple of his buddies were exposed to mustard gas. He said no one objected – at the time – you did what you were told to do.

“We were all young, 17 years old – 18 years old. You know,” Tedesco said.

He doesn’t remember the specifics of the mustard gas test — but he recalls what came next.

“The day after, I remember, they used to have two doctors and corpsmen come at noon and they checked us over,” Tedesco said. “For about a week, they did this and then we never seen them no more. That was it.”

In a few months, Tedesco was on his way to the Solomon Islands in the Pacific and later New Guinea. He would serve 21 months overseas. He was discharged May 2, 1946 in California.

“I’ve had breathing problems ever since I went into the Navy,” Tedesco said. “I don’t know if it was because I started smoking while I was in the Navy or if it was the mustard gas. But something’s bothered me ever since.”

Tedesco said he suffers from asthma and had to retire early from his job as a carpenter and building contractor, at age 57, because of chronic breathing problems.

A photo of the July 1991 newspaper article that gives details from four WWII sailors who say they were subjected to mustard gas experiments while in basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1944.

A photo of the July 1991 newspaper article that gives details from four WWII sailors who say they were subjected to mustard gas experiments while in basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1944.

He said he and some of his friends filed claims with the VA in 1991 when the mustard gas experiments were declassified. Their quest was written up in the local Erie newspaper.

But Tedesco said his claim was denied. He said he tried again when he got more proof – a copy of a letter a friend wrote while they were in boot camp together.

“And in that letter, he mentioned that we were mustard gassed and he had my name mentioned that we were there,” Tedesco said.

But again, the VA denied his claim, Tedesco said.

That’s when  he just let it go because he didn’t want to jeopardize the disability payment he does receive for hearing loss and a leg wound suffered in the war.

The VA has responded to NPR’s series on Broken Promises To Vets Exposed To Mustard Gas and lawmakers are promising take action including U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, vice-chairman of the US House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Bilirakis’ office has reached out to Tedesco to offer help getting his VA claim reviewed.

Camp Leatherneck Transfered to Afghan National Army

Marines and sailors with Marine Expeditionary Brigade – Afghanistan load onto a KC-130 aircraft on the Camp Bastion flightline, Oct. 27, 2014. The Marine Corps ended its mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan, the day prior and all Marines, sailors and service members from the United Kingdom withdrew from southwestern Afghanistan.

Marines and sailors with Marine Expeditionary Brigade – Afghanistan load onto a KC-130 aircraft on the Camp Bastion flightline, Oct. 27, 2014. The Marine Corps ended its mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan, the day prior and all Marines, sailors and service members from the United Kingdom withdrew from southwestern Afghanistan.

Another chapter in the Afghanistan War closed today as U.S. Marines, sailors and British forces left Helmand Province and transferred Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion to the Afghan National Army 215th Corps.

Regional Command Southwest is the first of the International Security Assistance Force commands to transfer authority to the Afghan national security forces as ISAF moves toward the Resolute Support mission that begins in 2015 according to a Department of Defense news release.

During the past year, Bosnia, Estonia, Denmark, Georgia, Jordan and Tonga ended their operations in Regional Command Southwest.

Tampa Business Leaders Honor the Military

Vice Admiral Mark Fox, deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, is the scheduled keynote speaker. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

Vice Admiral Mark Fox, deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, is the scheduled keynote speaker. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

The 2014 Military Appreciation Banquet March 4, 2014 will honor the Tampa Bay community’s military personnel. Awards will be presented to Officers of the Year, both commissioned and non-commissioned, for each branch of service, to civilians assisting the military community as well as recognizing the ROTC Cadet of the Year for the University of South Florida and the University of Tampa.

The U.S. Central Command deputy commander, Vice Admiral Mark Fox, is the scheduled keynote speaker. Fox was commissioned in June 1978 upon graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy and designated a Naval Aviator in March 1980.

The vice admiral has flown more than 100 combat sorties, logged more than 4,900 flight hours and landed 1,348 times on 15 different aircraft carriers, according to his CENTCOM biography.

Fox has served in Iraq and throughout the CENTCOM area of responsibility in several different capacities. Here’s a Youtube video of Vice-Admiral Fox, giving a special lecture where he highlighted several threats facing ships in the high seas off Somalia, including threats from terrorism and piracy, as well as the problems that have faced maritime law enforcement efforts.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn will also participate in the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Military Appreciation Banquet at the Marriott Waterside, Tampa, starting with a 6 p.m. reception.

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