Carnegie Village in Belton has been proud of its residents from the moment they opened their doors in 2003. Veterans have held a special place in the hearts of the staff who immediately began to organize a hall to show respect to those who served. The Wall of Honor was born. Every resident who had ever served in any of the armed forces was given a spot on the wall for their service picture. Carnegie provides the frames and name plates for the pictures that line the halls on either side of the library. It is quite a moving sight to see just how many men and women chose to serve their country in many different branches, theaters, and rolls.
One gentleman who shared his story was Thomas Gitto who served in the Air Force for 23 years, retiring from Richard Gebour Air Base. Now at 81 years of age, Gitto recalls his service with fondness. He joined at the tender age of 17 after dropping out of high school in Brooklyn, New York. The service gave him the opportunity to earn his high school diploma as well as to go on to earn a bachelor’s degree as a commissioned officer and eventually earning a master’s degree as well. “It turned me around. Things were not going well for me.”
He spent two tours overseas in France, serving one of them at NATO. He was also part of the Vietnam War, stationed 6 months at Guam overseeing the use of B-52s for bombing missions. From there he was brought back to the states where he met his sweetheart and got married. “Within a year of getting married, we were shipped to Turkey,” recalled Gitto. Those two years were full of memory making events. “My job required me to travel. We had mountain top relay stations, so I had to go deep into Turkey to visit those sites. We got to see things that were still there from the time of Jesus which was just awesome. That whole area was just beautiful,” said Gitto wistfully. After two years there, the Air Force moved them to Missouri where he settled, raised five children, and retired from the Air Force. As many service members often do, Gitto had a second career after leaving the Air Force. He went to work for Ewing Kaufmann as an executive recruiter.
Carl Freeman was another gentleman who took a few moments to share his story as well. He joined the United States Navy on February 22, 1943. He joined on Washington’s birthday because he said he was patriotic and he picked the Navy because he said he liked their uniforms. “I took a nice six month cruise on the Lexington,” he joked. Anyone who knows anything about WWII Naval history knows just how hard hit that ship was taking repeated torpedo hits and even kamikaze planes, but it refused to sink, earning the name from the Japanese the Blue Ghost. One of his missions during those months was to drop food to Louie Zapparinie, who is now famous for his story being put on the big screen in Unbroken. He was a tail gunner in WWII in the Pacific theater. “I didn’t think I was coming back. The odds of me coming back were not good,” said Freeman.
Freeman earned three Air Medals for his service, but no (thankfully) purple heart. He had over 300 bullet holes in his plane after one particularly harrowing mission. “Bullets came through on both sides of me. I never got hit.” He was in Japan when the peace treaty between Japan and the United States was signed on the USS Missouri. He knew he was living a piece of history and took a few mementos of the occasion including a piece of the Japanese flag that featured the rising sun that was on their planes as well as a blinker light with “Honor the Emperor. For Emergency Use Only” written on it in Japanese.
After the war Freeman left the service for a year, but re-enlisted for another four years in 1947. Though suffering from PTSD, he found that being in the service in time of relative peace was a little boring. “There wasn’t much need for tail gunners then,” he said. But he was able to find peace sharing his story with groups and writers. He was also able to move past the hate propaganda of the time. “I fought against the Japs and now I have friends who are Japanese,” remarked Freeman.
These are just two of the many stories of the men and women from the service who have made Carnegie Village their home. The staff of the Carnegie Village continue their mission to honor veterans by participating in a clothing drive to collect new or gently used suits to give to men and women who come home from service. After four plus years in the military, many returning veterans do not have a decent suit to use for job interviews and such. Carnegie Village will be accepting suits during June and July. What a great way to care for those who have sacrificed so much for us to live in freedom.