Column: Proudly sharing family name with veterans


I am a stranger to war, but the Saalman name is not.

I am the great-great-great grandson of Sergeant Christian Saalman, a Union soldier who died at Camp Sumter, Georgia, a Confederate-run prison better known as Andersonville, the deadliest landscape of the Civil War.

Scurvy and thirst did Christian in, making him one of 13,000 Union soldiers to perish at the prison from either disease, poor sanitation, malnutrition, overcrowding or exposure.

I am the great nephew of Major Otis Saalman, a prisoner of war for three years in the Philippines, where he experienced the horrors of Japanese prison camps and prison ships. Otis also endured the Bataan Death March, during which he saw men bayoneted, beheaded and shot. Again, another Saalman soldier involved in yet another tragic war-related wasteland.

I am the third cousin of Corporal Sally Saalman, who, as a Marine, was wounded during a suicide bomber’s attack in Falluja on June 23, 2005. Three male soldiers and three female soldiers were killed, making it one of the most devastating battles ever involving American female soldiers.

As reported in the New York Times, “The suicide bomber had waited for his victims alongside the road, and then rammed his car into the truck with deadly precision. The ambush ignited an inferno — scorching flesh, scattering bodies and mixing smoke, blood and dirt. Several of the women lost the skin on their hands. One’s goggles fused to her cheeks. After rolling 50 yards on fire, the truck flipped and spilled the women onto the road, where enemy snipers opened fire. With their own ammunition bursting in the heat, the women crawled and pulled one another from the burning wreckage. They were parched and dazed, and as one marine pleaded for water, another asked over and over, ‘How do I look?’ ‘It was like somebody had ripped her face off,’ said Cpl. Sally J. Saalman, the leader of the group, who was waving her own hands to cool them. “I told her, ‘It’ll be all right, babe.’ “

“I mostly remember the moment I blacked out and thought I was dead. Then I heard the gun fire, explosion, and the heat on my hands before my truck flipped,” Sally wrote to me on Veteran’s Day 2018.

“Family history definitely inspired me,” she wrote, explaining her enlistment. “But I could not and will not compare my experience to theirs. They went through a different kind of hell. I had the facilities and gear, and I was not captured. I will always relive the bad things. But thank God I never had to go through an experience like theirs. The only things we have in common are our last names, our patriotism, and how we made a historical mark on history. I am proud to call myself a Saalman.”

Christian, Otis and Sally. Three soldiers with the same surname involved in three tragic war-time scenarios over a 142-year span.

Now, enter a fourth Saalman: Agnes. Agnes Saalman was just as much of a war hero as the others. Married to Otis, Agnes was a lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps. While her husband was a POW in the Pacific Theater, she served in the European Theater as a front-line nurse in the Battle of the Bulge, during which American forces experienced World War II’s greatest casualty rate.

I first learned about Agnes through Cousin Sally a couple years ago, though details were somewhat vague. I learned more via a tribute to Agnes on Peggy Saalman-Mullis’ Facebook page on Veterans’ Day 2018. Peggy is Agnes’ daughter and Sally’s aunt.

Posted Peggy, “She could hear the bombs exploding when the Battle of the Bulge was raging. Wounded soldiers were coming in so fast they hardly had time to patch them up. She said she didn’t eat or sleep for over 2 days at times.”

Peggy noted that Agnes was also one of the first nurses to help liberate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany, where Anne Frank and an estimated 50,000 people perished.

Posted Peggy, “She witnessed many horrors. When the British 11th Armored Division entered the camp, the first thing she witnessed upon entering was three large piles of humans that had been doused with gasoline and set on fire. She recalled hearing the screams and seeing arms and legs moving.”

“I feel an enormous sense of gratitude and appreciation to (mom) for having given so much to our country,” added Peggy.

Agnes died in 2001, a few months before 9/11 and Sally’s subsequent enlistment.

Wrote Sally, “I loved her dearly, and she was another reason I joined the military.”

Christian, Otis, Sally and Agnes: thank you for your selfless servitude and patriotism for this great nation of ours. You represent the best of us. I am a stranger to war who is very proud to share a surname with you.

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