Vets in La Jolla share their stories of service


Staff Writer

Veterans Day is a special time to recognize all those living and deceased who’ve served in the armed forces.

Originally known as Armistice Day commemorating the signing of the agreement ending World War I at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the holiday’s name was changed to Veterans Day in 1954. That year, then-President Eisenhower proclaimed Nov. 11th as a day to honor American veterans of all wars.

The military holiday now is a day to pay tribute to those servicemen and women who’ve placed themselves in harm’s way and paid the ultimate price, or come though it with physical or psychological scars.

One of many La Jollans who witnessed combat first-hand was Jerry Steiner, a resident of White Sands retirement community, who was a World War II medical corpsman and participated in D-Day. Though he himself miraculously escaped personal injury, he will never forget the carnage of that day and afterwards.

“I was very fortunate,” he added about his war experience. “Everyone was losing toes and fingers and we had 17 inches of snow for about a month.”

Steiner, 85, recalled his most horrendous experience as a medic.

“A real close buddy of mine got hit by a mortar and had about 150 shrapnel wounds all over his body and there was nothing I could do,” he said.

Others who saw action in the U.S. Armed Services weren’t as fortunate as Steiner in evading debilitating injury, like John Bartz of Pt. Loma, 89, whose back is disabled from having been a POW in a Japanese prison camp.

“I had numerous beatings on the Burma death railroad,” he said. “We used to have to carry 50-gallon drums of oil on our backs. I don’t really talk to much about it: My psychiatrist said not to — I might put myself into a depression.”

And then there are young contemporary soldiers, like 28-year-old Tristan Wyatt, who was living his dream of being a soldier when he suffered life-changing injuries while serving in Iraq in 2003 and has had to totally rebuild his life.

“I lost my right leg above the knee in a firefight,” he said. “I never intended to leave the Army. Civilian life was really difficult. There was a lot of feeling of being lost not knowing where to start.”

But Wyatt found a new beginning helping similarly injured ex-military personnel rehabilitate from their injuries. A supervisor in the prosthetic department of the Veterans Hospital in San Diego, Wyatt now supervises a staff of eight.

“Part of what we do here is fabricate and fit artificial limbs, and then help people learn how to use it to function in every day life,” he said. “I help to mentor them.”

Wyatt said his biggest fear was never being able to find anything that was as fulfilling as being a solider. “It’s nice to be able to fill that void and be able to help these guys and do something positive,” he concluded.

As veterans young and old cope with the pain of war, the Veterans Medical Research Foundation is striving to combat their maladies.

The foundation’s aim is to increase and enhance medical research devoted to veterans including studies focused on posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, as well as shingles prevention, small pox, alcoholism and heart disease.

“Our mission is to honor (military) service with science,” said Foundation CEO Kerstin Lynam. “So we administer and support medical research conducted through the VA heath system with over 200 studies conducted by 112 researchers. We are pushing the envelope for improved healthcare for veterans. Though veterans benefit first from our research, all of it is applicable to the general public.”