The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

November 24, 2012

Meeting with Petraeus seemed like encounter with true greatness

By Larry Dablemont
Globe Columnist

— We were speaking at a small town church recently, after a special dinner they held for the local community.

Later a man came up to me and told me that since he graduated from high school he had only read one book, and that was the book “Ridge-Runner, From the Big Piney to the Battle of the Bulge,” the life story of my Uncle Norten.

“I read it twice,” he told me, “they ought to make a movie out of it.”

On Sept. 20, 2002, Major Gen.David Petraeus, who at that time was the commander of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., met with my uncle to tell him how much he liked his book. Gen. Petraeus had invited us there after he had read it, and in his office, he inscribed one for me, with the notation — “With admiration and the utmost respect for all that you did to capture the history of a great paratrooper, an awesome screaming eagle unit and the greatest generation.” He signed it ‘David H. Petraeus, MG U.S. Army- Eagle.’

He spent much of that Saturday with my uncle and me, and he told me that “Ridge-Runner” was one of the best books he had ever read. Then he and several of his officers took us out on the grounds to look at one of the airplanes that World War II paratroopers had jumped from, and to meet with young paratroopers.

My uncle was visibly moved that day. They gave him a special commendation and put his name and photo on what they referred to as the 327th division’s Wall of Fame, where he became the 27th WWII paratrooper so honored. Petraues showed us how they had pulled up records to trace my uncle’s travels during the war, from Holland to Bastogne Belgium into the Ardennes Forest, on to Austria where he served at Bertchesgaden and was involved in returning the Lipizzaner Stallions, and then to Germany, marching past Auschwitz, and finally to Sans France, where the 101st was dissolved because there were so few of them left.

In France, his unit was placed in the 82nd Airborne, and in the victory parade in New York months later, my uncle marched before Gen. Eisenhower and President Truman with an 82nd Airborne insignia on one shoulder and the screaming eagle 101st Airborne insignia on the other. He was part of the 327th division when he went to Europe, then part of the 501st division later in the war.

When I talked to Petraeus that day I felt like I was in the presence of greatness. He was one of the most impressive men I have ever been around, though quiet and unassuming. He was always smiling, but soft spoken, outgoing and a complete confidence that caused anyone around him to be at ease.

Out on the grounds, you could see that young paratroopers who snapped to attention and saluted him were filled with respect for their commander. They seemed to be in awe of my uncle. Each of them knew all about Bastogne.

On the way back, I commented that maybe someday Gen. Petraeus would be President. My Uncle shifted his cigar and shook his head. “I hope not,” he said, “he seems like too good a man to get into that crooked bunch. Eisenhower could give him some advice about that.”

Back then, no one here knew about Gen. Petraeus. Now everyone knows him.

I have been offered a lot of money for that book he signed, and the military coin he gave me with his name and rank engraved on the back. He got into politics after all, I think maybe with the wrong people. And while he is destroyed by a single affair with a woman, I can’t understand this nation’s way of looking at things.

When I lived in Arkansas, our governor had several affairs, and became one of our most beloved presidents, continuing his way of doing things in the White House.

Petraeus made funds available from Fort Campbell to hold a dinner for World War II paratroopers in Springfield on Veteran’s Day in 2002. We had a big crowd that day, with 27 WWII paratroopers and their wives showing up, to have a big dinner at the behest of Gen. Petraeus, who went on to Iraq only a few months later with those young 101st Airborne soldiers.

Norten’s health is declining, he is pretty much ignored and not taken very good care of in an Ozark nursing home, far away from me where I can’t help him much. He will be 90 years old this coming year, and he still smiles when I show him the photo of him and Gen. Petraeus. In some eyes, Gen. Petraeus may be disgraced, but not in mine. Men have weaknesses, and we are selective about whom we forgive and whom we condemn.

I got to see firsthand what awaits old soldiers like my uncle, seeing what something called “social services” has allowed to happen to him. If you read the book “Ridge-Runner,” you will appreciate more what the World War II generation did for us.