He is 90 this year, a frail old man gripped by Parkinson’s disease. But in 1941, when he went to war, he was a recruiting-poster-handsome 6-footer, a lieutenant in one of the toughest units ever to wear American uniforms–Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment.
He became an officer because he saw incompetent officers and swore that he could do better. He went Airborne because he wanted to be part of an elite unit, with men he could depend on alongside him. But like every man who fought in that war he was a reluctant soldier; he wanted nothing more than to get the job done and go home.
When his unit shipped to England Winters was billeted with an English family and had a room to himself. In the spare time he had, he locked himself into that room with a book of tactics and turned himself into a soldier–as it turned out, a remarkable one.
He was brave–unfailingly and almost suicidally so. The men of his unit who survived marvel that he lived. He always put his soldiers first. He was always fair. And in combat, he always made the right decisions. In the first action he commanded, his squad took out a German artillery emplacement, doing it with such efficiency that the action is still used at West Point as a model of how to attack a fixed position.
He was given the Distinguished Service Cross, and there are people working today to have it upgraded to the Medal of Honor. But Dick Winters shows no interest; he agrees with the other paratroopers who jumped on Normandy that the real heroes are the men who lie there forever.
When Band of Brothers aired in 2001, Dick Winters became a celebrity. His mail–already considerable–grew to the point where he was unable to answer it. He does not believe that he is a celebrity, or that he deserves fame. He sees himself simply as a soldier who did the best he could and was lucky to emerge from the war alive. He knows that he and Easy Company are only representatives for other men and other units who fought just as hard and suffered just as much, and that it was by sheer chance that he–and they–became famous.
There are men just like Dick Winters wearing the uniform today, but it is not their fate to serve in a war where the sides are clearly drawn and a united country stands behind them. We will probably never know their names, but that does not detract from what they are or what they do for us.
Monday, May 26, is a good time to thank them.