We’re going to Luxembourg this summer

By Arne Vainio. M.D.
News From Indian Country

We’re going to Luxembourg this summer.
 
This has been in the works for several years, but we’re finally going to make it happen. My involvement in this is from several different perspectives.
 
When I first met Stan, I saw an old man who continually seemed confused about everything. On his very first visit he came in because he needed a refill of his medicines. He didn’t have any of the bottles, but had his day’s supply of pills in a little rubber coin purse. He didn’t know the names of any of them or what they did, he just knew how many times a day he took the blue rectangular pill, the round orange pill and so on. This was before everything was on the internet and it took a pharmacist the better part of a day to figure out his meds. His blood pressure was very high and I needed to add a medicine, but he told me he had been started on a new medicine once and it caused severe abdominal pain and he ended up in the hospital. He thought it was a blood pressure medicine, but he didn’t remember the name. He thought it started with an “A” or an “L”.
 
Every hallway seemed to be a challenge and he would stand outside any door clearly wondering which way to go. I couldn’t get a straight answer to any question and every answer had a long story leading up to it. I spent hours trying to explain his medical conditions to him and after a long and what I thought was a clear explanation, he would ask a basic question that I had already answered several times.
 
All of his visits turned into very long and complicated ordeals and I was always late for my patients for the rest of the day after any encounter with him. He was hard of hearing and I had to yell to communicate with him. He would start the visit talking about one thing and as I was getting ready to leave tell me why he was really there. Those reasons were always big reasons and were not things I could put off until his next visit. He lived a long way away and a visit with me meant his entire day.
 
I came to dread seeing his name on my schedule.
 
In spite of that, I liked him and he liked me. I knew he had been in the military service because I finally got his records from the VA and he had an extensive and complicated medical history.
 
One day I came into the exam room to see him and he had a wrinkled and torn brown paper bag on his lap. “Dr. Vainio, I thought I might show these to you.”
 
The bag was covered in dust and I assumed it was an old car part he was going to show me. He reached into the bag and he pulled out an old metal helmet.  There were several holes through the helmet and the webbing was torn from shrapnel.
 
He told me he was at Normandy during the invasion in World War II. Most of his unit didn’t survive and he didn’t want to talk about that. He passed me the helmet and he reached into the bag and pulled out a Purple Heart medal.
 
“I never look at these anymore”, he said softly, “I just thought I might show them to you.”
 
I’d never even seen a Purple Heart before, much less held one. I couldn’t hold back my tears and I couldn’t talk for several minutes. I had been seeing him as a confused old man when in reality he fought against incredible odds when he was just a boy. I saw him with different eyes and I saw him that way for every visit thereafter. None of his conditions got easier, none of his stories were less convoluted, he never understood me the first time, his hearing never got better, but now none of that mattered.
 
He fought for me.
 
Johnny Mercer was my wife Ivy’s great uncle. He was from the Grand Portage reservation in northeastern Minnesota and was 19 years old when he entered the service. He was on a bomber crew when his plane was shot down over Germany. No one ever really knew for sure what happened to him, they just knew he died in the war.
 
He was simply gone.
 
Ivy was researching our family histories when our 14 year old son Jacob was born and she started trying to find out what happened to Johnny. She was eventually able to find his story and found out he was buried in the American Cemetery in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg. She was able to get pictures of his grave marker for family.
 
Ivy’s grandmother is 87 years old and she remembers Johnny to Ivy. She remembers him as a 19 year old man, handsome and strong. She cried when Ivy sent her the picture of Johnny’s grave marker and Johnny will always be 19 years old to her.
 
This summer we are traveling to Luxembourg. Most people think we’re crazy because we’re only going there for 2 days and then we’re coming home. We aren’t going to Paris or to any other big cities or to any museums or famous places.
 
Ivy and Jacob and I are going as a delegation, the way our people have always gone when there is something of great importance. We are going there for one purpose only and not as part of a trip to an amusement park or a resort.
 
We are going there to honor our warriors. Ivy will touch Johnny’s grave marker for her grandmother and we will put asemaa down and we will thank him in Ojibwe for his sacrifice. We will stand with him as family.
 
No one has ever been to his grave site. Before Ivy found him, no one even knew where he was.
 
Stan died several years ago and I didn’t get to see him before he died. I suspect he never had the chance to go to the cemetery to honor his fallen brothers.
 
I will do that for him. I will also do that for anyone else who has relatives there. Send me their names and I will speak them as we thank Johnny and the rest of our Ogichidaa, our warriors.
We will talk to our elders to find out what we need to do to do this in the proper way. Many will not have the opportunity we’ve been given to make this journey. We need to do this right.
 
We need to do this while Ivy’s grandmother is still with us.
 
We’ll see you soon, Johnny.
 
 
Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe practicing on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
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