DeKALB – Veterans Day is about the red, white and blue, but the feelings some veterans have today are not always black and white.
For 89-year-old Cecile Meyer, the memories she has of her time in the Marines during World War II are pleasant, painful and a reminder of how much the entire experience would shape the rest of her life.
Meyer grew up on the east coast of Florida during the height of the Great Depression. Despite becoming valedictorian of her class, Meyer could not afford college. With no brothers, she decided to join the military and do her part to stop the atrocities she heard were happening in Europe.
“Hitler was marching all over Europe, doing terrible things, and I thought I should do my duty,” Meyer said. “I wasn’t as much of a pacifist as I am now.”
When she was 21, she became one of the few women to join the Marines, although a trip to Europe would never happen. Instead, Meyer was deployed to Hawaii, where she was in charge of ordering supplies.
It was in the Pacific where she experienced war without ever stepping on a battlefield. She remembers looking through the pictures of handsome men in the salty, sandy wallets of the ones who died storming the beaches and listening to stories from those returning about running straight into enemy fire and seeing nothing but fallen brothers. She remembers the sadness of receiving a letter with “undeliverable” because the person it was intended for had died.
The Sunday afternoon trips the women would take to the plastic surgery ward remain among her most vivid memories.
“You could smell it because of the rotting flesh,” Meyer said of the trips. “These active duty guys were giving it their all ... and I never met one that wasn’t willing to go back.”
Unfortunately, she said, there was more than just physical damage done to the soldiers. Meyer recalled meeting Marines would make necklaces out of the teeth of Japanese soldiers and talk about shooting prisoners who turned their backs to them and claim the prisoner attempted to escape.
“I felt we had destroyed not only their bodies, but their feelings of humanity toward other people,” Meyer said of the result of the war.
After her experiences in the Marines, Meyer said she no longer believed it was her duty to fight in wars, but to advocate for peace in all areas. Meyer moved to DeKalb in 1956 where she became a social worker, civil rights organizer, and advocate to end wars. She was the founder of the Interfaith Network for Peace and Justice.
She has also held on to her military past, advocating for increased services for veterans – who she said are in a tragic situation, especially in Illinois where too many are homeless.
“It’s disgraceful,” Meyer said of the number of homeless veterans. “Veterans deserve credit for what they did, and they certainly need to be taken care of and respected.”
The best way to care for veterans, she said, is to make sure people do not become veterans.
“I’m grateful for what the government did for me,” she said. “But my major plea is to stop making veterans. I want to live in a country that doesn’t ask their young people to fight in wars.”