Veteran ‘went through hell and heaven’March 13, 2020
By ALLEN LAMAN
JASPER — Inside the home he built for the family he nurtured, Leo Eckerle still has a glass box filled with ribbons and patches. He was given one for serving honorable active duty in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Another came for displaying exemplary behavior, efficiency and fidelity in active federal military service.
It was a stint that shaped him into a strong leader, while also filling him with an emotional duress that he carries through the 91st year of his life.
If you met Leo today, if you saw his warm smile and snow white hair for the first time in the twilight of his life, if you heard him talk of how much he loves his late wife and his children, you wouldn’t wonder, or think to ask, about the seven months he spent crawling through trenches on the frontline, or surviving dim-lit gunfights, or losing his friends and comrades who had so much to come home to, but never did.
Like many who were separated from their families by military service, Leo carries a weight that cannot be dropped. He didn’t talk about it for many years after he returned home. Now, the memories cause his eyes to well with tears and his voice to crack.
Near the bottom of his framed honors rests a pair of bronze stars affixed on a multi-colored band. To him, they represent the good and the bad, the pain and the glory, the love and the loss of a brief period of time that preceded his molding into the gentle, yet complicated man he is today.
“It means we went through hell and heaven,” Leo, 91, said of the stars. “That’s what it is.”
Drafted in 1952, he was an infantryman, one of what he called the “mudtrompers,” one of 60,000 men who lived in their uniforms, and braced themselves when the sun set.
Leo showered three times during his time in Korea. He lived a nightmare every single day. He thought he’d never make it back.
He saw the internal organs spill out of a young man whose stomach had been ripped open by shrapnel. Once, an enemy bayonet nearly swiped his neck, but he deflected it. Another time, he saw an artillery round land in the trenches between his comrades, and when the medics came to collect the torn bodies, they didn’t know which pieces belonged to whom.
“We did it,” Leo said, recalling how he and his fellow soldiers scraped through that hell, day in and day out. “And never, never did we doubt each other.”
The barrels of their guns would melt due to the large quantity of rapid rounds they fired. Leo never killed another man face to face, but he, just like everyone in those dirt channels, would unload round, after round, after round into the distance.
He didn’t just fend for himself. A tech sergeant, he fought for his men, who respected him, and believed in him. Leo led their charge. They would tell him that when he was the one behind a heavy-duty machine gun, that was when they actually felt safe.
He finished his term as a recruit trainer. Leo said to the new soldiers that he might have been a nobody, but he knew what needed to be done, because he knew the horrors that lay ahead.
Even though he pushed their bodies and minds to the brink, he chiseled the boys into men, and though they might have hated him some days, they said they would do anything for him. When he left them, the recruits pooled together more than enough money for him to buy a plane ticket home.
The light at the end of the tunnel, the reason he never gave up throughout any of it, was his wife, Lora Lou. When the draft letter came, the Eckerles promised each other that they would be brave. He was determined to make it through for her. She wrote to him daily.
But when Leo finally returned, he didn’t feel anything, because he was trained to survive, and part of that training was to become an animal, to feel nothing. And it worked.
“You had to work it out of your brain,” he said of that mentality. “Because you were indoctrinated to stay alive, and anything that got in your way...” his voice trailed off.
Upon reintegrating to civilian life, feeling did come back, but he felt only unrest, and he struggled to reset his mind. War pain, specifically the emotional damage, back then, it just wasn’t talked about. It still isn’t easy.
They can’t be unseen, the expressions on the faces of men clinging for life, men who didn’t want to die, men with wives and children, with brothers and sisters, with fathers and mothers, with entire lives ahead of them, and those young faces, begging to be saved, begging for embraces they’d never feel, for moments they’d never see — those memories are burned into his mind.
“Those guys died over there just like we did,” Leo said of Korean troops. “And believe me, they did not want to be there, like you and I. And you don’t know how hard it is to kill somebody that don’t want to be there.”
Over time, though, he began to feel the good in life, too. When he started to sense it again, about a year after he shed his uniform for good, it was with Lora Lou, when they would dance, and when they would play cards with friends, and when they would stay out into the community until the wee hours of the morning.
He felt it when they lay in bed, when she pressed her body up against his, and he knew, he knew he wasn’t ducking bullets in the trenches, and he knew that he’d made it back to her, the love of his life, the woman who never stopped loving him, his wife, whose softness saved him, and whose tenderness dissolved the hurt.
It was the heaven he’d longed for.
The two were married for 62 years and raised two adopted children: Duane of Jasper, and Sheila, who passed away from breast cancer at age 44. A devout Christian, Leo now feels the good when he spends time with and talks to his friends and family.
“Those are the things, that I really think, that’s what keeps me alive,” he said of the many people who hold him dear.
The pain never really goes away. But when he looks back on his life, Leo says it was more than full. Now, he can feel everything. The sadness, the pride, the guilt, the happiness, the loss, the regret — emotions that he doesn’t hold in anymore.
Though he went through hell, he is loved by many, and he has love for many. And he has left his mark.
“Today, I’m so proud of it,” Leo said of his time in the Army. “What I accomplished, and what guys thought of me. I didn’t do anything unless I went first.”
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