Golden Age residents recall military service

Veterans’ Day honors those who have served and sacrificed so much for the common good, and in their lifetimes given and hopefully received well deserved blessings of peace.

Four residents of the Golden Age Apartments in Norwich remember their wartime experiences differently, as veterans, civilians, and as carriers of the American Dream, when life was lost – and found – in war.

Patsy Figary, a Naval veteran of the Vietnam War who served in the medical corps, said serving her country nearly changed her overnight, and has played a large role in defining who she is today.

“There is so much pride in what you did,” said Figary. “Once you put on that uniform, you changed. Once you’re a veteran you are always a veteran.”

Figary worked stateside in Chicago, Rhode Island, and Orlando caring for wounded veterans. She said that regardless of whether a soldier lived or died, the life-altering – or ending – consequences of combat she witnessed can only truly be appreciated by recognizing and cherishing the freedom of home.

“It’s a scary thing, these were just kids,” she said. “During peacetime they (civilians) are not quite as mindful. Because of veterans you are able to have that peace.”

Harold Curnalia served as a quartermaster Sergeant in the 8th Air Force during World War II, and was stationed in Bushy Park, then General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s tactical headquarters just outside London. Curnalia married his wife, a native of Britain, and they had a child while stationed abroad. He said it was a tough and sometimes upsetting balance being in love and raising a family amidst a war.

“Things were rough,” said Curnalia, a former resident of Chenango Lake. “It was a mix of everything.”

The WWII veteran said he would often have to leave his family without any notice, and be away for months at a time, only seeing his daughter twice in the first year after she was born. When his tour ended, he was sent to America before his family, and waited nearly six months until they were reunited in January 1946 at a Red Cross shelter in New York City.

“You can’t imagine,” he said.

To this day, Curnalia looks back on his time during WWII fondly, remembering friends, colleagues, and England, the place where he started his family, but has never been able to return to.

“I appreciated all the people we knew there, they were wonderful to us,” he said. “There were so many good friends.”

On the homefront, civilians were also asked to go above and beyond for their country by living below their normal standard of living. Jane Stillinger was living with her husband and baby daughter in Western New York at the time, and she says rationing goods and giving up certain conveniences for the war effort was not hard when considering the cause.

“Everyone was very patriotic,” Stillinger said. “Everyone bent over backwards.” “And if they didn’t, they were reported,” she said laughingly.

World War II, as it did for many others, allowed the Stillingers to take home their own piece of world history. She explained that her husband was not allowed to enlist, but rather was sent off to Decatur, Ill., to work in a factory as a skilled machinist. Without ever being told, Stillinger’s husband figured out when the war ended that his factory in Illinois was producing diffusion barriers that were used in testing and developing the Atomic Bomb.

“We backed them (veterans) up,” she said, “and did what we could.”

Evalyn Wheeler, a native of Oxford and former resident of Guilford, said she’s not sure why she enlisted in the Army in 1943, but would do it again if given the chance.

“I don’t feel like I’m any kind of a hero – I’m glad I went,” said Wheeler, who was stationed in New Guinea and Manilla as an operator and mail carrier. “It was rough for the boys in combat, they changed.”

Wheeler said the war provided her, as a young woman, the independence to see the world and meet all different kinds of people, an experience she probably would not have been able to have otherwise. And like Curnalia, she also met her future spouse while in the service.

“I don’t think I changed too much,” she said, referring to her time in the Army. “But I’d probably have to ask someone else.”

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