MARC CHASE: Strands of veteran neglect darken patriotic fabric

2013-11-07T00:00:00Z MARC CHASE: Strands of veteran neglect darken patriotic fabricmarc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
November 07, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Think you've got it rough, do you? Then you haven't heard about the life of Merrillville's Israel Pierce.

The true tale of this hardened combat veteran should be enough to give us all pause as we consider so many tragic heroes of our nation's past and present this coming Veterans Day Monday.

Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking details is the profoundly horrible job our government did of assisting Pierce after his debilitating Army service was over.

But his military service also began with the most painful of tragedies a parent could imagine. Two months before enlisting, Pierce and his wife, Mary, lost their infant son to sickness.

They had no sooner buried little Major Pierce at the Merrillville Cemetery on 73rd Avenue when Pierce joined a number of his friends in arms, riding a wave of patriotism that often swells when our nation is threatened.

Personal tragedy wasn't enough to keep Pierce, a salt-of-the-earth farmer by trade, from his nation's call to duty.

For nearly four years, Sgt. Pierce threw his body into the service of this country, suffering wounds along the way of both body and spirit. Bullets grazed his flesh, friends died around him and the rigors of war took his healthy body and replaced it with an arthritic shell.

At the end of his service and the great war of his time, Pierce returned home. It should have been to adoring cheers, but it wasn't.

The rheumatism infesting Pierce's joints made working his Merrillville farm exceptionally difficult and painful.

The government he had served didn't do anything to cushion the blow. For the better part of two decades after returning home, Pierce petitioned unsuccessfully for a government disability pension.

Several of his fellow veterans testified and filed affidavits on his behalf.

But the government wasn't biting.

Twenty years after leaving the service — his body used up and put away wet and the demons of war still plaguing his psyche — Pierce tied a rope to the rafters of his barn and hanged himself.

The horrors of some veterans returning from service and taking their own lives have been documented in modern news accounts. But it's a tragic side of patriotism — a black stripe in the otherwise red, white and blue bunting — that has been part of our nation's fabric for generations.

Pierce served in the American Civil War. He was a combat veteran of the 99th Indiana Infantry, a regiment that lost 178 of its 984 members to disease or fatal battlefield injuries through the course of the 1861-1865 war. So many more came home robbed of limbs or normal function.

The tale of Pierce's fight for post-war government benefits is well documented in military pension files still maintained by Crown Point's Alice Smedstad, Pierce's great-great granddaughter.

Those documents are more than 100 years old.

Let's keep that in mind as we honor the living veterans of more modern eras and consider their needs for both physical and psychological care after they have risked their lives for us. Stories of neglecting the nation's finest shouldn't be etched in our history.

Investigative Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. The opinions are the writer's.

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