Joe Colmer and my debt of gratitude

My friend Joe Colmer.

My friend Joe Colmer.

“Just wanted to let you know my dad passed away today,” Sheri

When the Facebook alert popped up on the screen of my iPhone I could only read “Just wanted to let you know my…..” Deep down I knew what the rest of the message said and my heart just sank. I turned to my wife Lisa and said “I don’t think I want to read the whole message.” The message was from Sheri Colmer-Williams, the daughter of Joe Colmer.

Fate brought me together with Joe and his wonderful family back in 2008. I met Joe and Sheri at the pre-flight dinner for the Inaugural Quad-Cities Honor Flight. I had picked Joe’s name off the long list of veterans going on the trip because he was traveling with two of his three children, Bruce and Sheri. My dad, Blair Mizener, and Joe were both members of the Greatest Generation. Blair had passed away a few years prior to Honor Flight robbing him of what, in retrospect, might have been a healing trip for him. So as a bit of an homage to Dad I thought my story should revolve around the bonding experience of a soldier and his child on Honor Flight.

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Bruce Colmer and Sheri Colmer-Williams with their dad, Joe Colmer, at the WWII Memorial in Washington DC on November 1, 2008.

Who knows what brings people together. In my case with Joe something just clicked. Not only did he remind me a little of my dad but his life story was so compelling I could talk to him all day. During that first interview, conducted in a little room at the Knights of Columbus Hall following the dinner, it was clear that Joe was skating around some of the traumatic details of his service during WWII. The longer we talked the more I understood there were obviously some things he just wasn’t going to talk about.

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Every time I asked Joe what he though of the Honor Flight experience he smiled and said “It’s great. I just can’t believe it.”

It has been my experience that members of the greatest generation don’t like to talk about their service. As far as they are concerned they did their job and came home. Talking about it wasn’t part of the deal they made when they signed up. Personally, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the WWII vets. My dad, who served stateside because of medical a condition, always called them the “real heroes”. They were his classmates and friends. Those who came back were cherished and those who did not were revered.

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Bruce Colmer and his father, WWII veteran Joe Colmer, at the WWII Memorial in Washington DC on November 1, 2008.

Joe and Bruce.

Joe and Bruce embrace after Joe finished an emotional interview with me at the WWII Memorial during the inaugural Honor Flight of the Quad Cities.

On the day of the Honor Flight, as Bruce and his dad worked their way around the WWII Memorial in Washington DC, I think Joe finally got to say goodbye to some of the ghosts that had been quietly haunting him for years. So as he sat in his wheelchair, with Bruce steadying him with one hand and holding my mic in the other, Joe finally told the story. For the first time in his life he told the story of the young private who was shot in the head by a German sniper and died in Joe’s arms. His voice trailing off he asked to stop the interview. Bruce hugged him and I did my best to capture the moment, which of course is my job, but still be respectful of their moment.

Later in the day, as the old warriors were loading up on the bus to go to the airport, Bruce pulled me aside and thanked me. He told me that Joe had never told that story before and he was grateful to have been there to share in the moment. I don’t think I will ever get a thank you more meaningful than that one.

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World War II veteran Joe Colmer of East Moline leaves his wheelchair behind as he takes a moment to be by himself while visiting the World War II Memorial. Colmer, a veteran of D-Day and other major battles during the war, was among 96 local veterans who traveled to the nation’s capital in November of 2008 to visit the World War II Memorial as part of Inaugural Honor Flight of the Quad Cities.

Soon after the interview, Joe asked for a moment alone and he stood up from his wheel chair. With his cane to steady him he walked away leaving the chair behind. His walking away is the moment captured in my photo. The remarkable thing about that photo is how alone Joe is in the frame. The memorial was packed with people and yet not one other person wandered into the frame. I believe my Dad in heaven was the angel on my shoulder as I lined up the image though my viewfinder.

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Joe gets a big hug from his wife Alberta upon his return to the Quad Cities International Airport in Moline, Ill.

Following Honor Flight I felt like Joe and his family had given me such a huge gift letting me tell their story I couldn’t help but want to do something to thank them. I had some prints made from the trip, burned a few DVDs and delivered them during my one and only trip to the Colmers’ home in East Moline. It was amazing how welcome Joe and his wife Alberta made me feel as we sat and chatted in their kitchen.

Before I left their house they surprised me with a gift certificate to Appleby’s which I tried to gracefully refuse but Alberta was not taking ‘no’ for an answer.

I left the house with every intention of stopping back on occasion. I thought about it every time I glanced up at Joe’s photo which hangs over my desk. They said the door was always open to come by anytime and I believed them. Now I saw Joe a few times at various events around town but I never made to back to their house. In the heat of the work day you are focused on the tasks at hand but in the quiet of the night you start thinking about all the things you have left undone, the letters you need to write, the places you need to visit, the stories you want to tell and the people you need to hug.

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World War II veteran Joe Colmer is greeted at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., after he and 93 other Quad-Cities veterans arrived at the nation’s capital as part of Quad Cities Honor Flight.

Maybe I didn’t stop by because I didn’t want to have to run in and run out. Joe deserved better than that. But to never stop by, that was just wrong. My guilt is lessened a bit by the messages I have received from his daughters in the last few days. Following the passing of Alberta, his wife of 58 years, in early November Patti and Sheri read him a note I had posted on Sheri’s Facebook page and Patti responded “I just read this to Dad, Todd…..he continues to talk of you so often and said he cannot believe you would have his picture above your desk!!!!! Thank you for always thinking of us”

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Joe, Bruce, Alberta and Sheri at the Quad Cities International Airport just before the veterans and their guardians boarded their charter flight to Washington D.C.

And after Joe’s passing Sheri sent the following –  “Thank you. He thought a lot about you too. He truly enjoyed being on the Honor Flight with you and talking with you. He was always asking me if I had talked with you. Thank you again for everything you did for our family.”

I probably spent a total of 48 hours in the presence of Joe Colmer, but he changed my life forever. So as far as I am concerned I owe Joe, and his family, a debt that can never be repaid.

Thanks to Joe, I got to have my own father and son moment at the memorial.

WWII veteran Joe Colmer of East Moline, Ill., visits the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C.  as part of Honor Flight of the Quad Cities, Saturday November 01, 2008.

WWII veteran Joe Colmer of East Moline, Ill., visits the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. as part of Honor Flight of the Quad Cities, Saturday November 01, 2008.

RELATED VIDEO FROM HONOR FLIGHT:

Here are the some of the videos I produced as part of my coverage of the inaugural Honor Flight of the Quad Cities. I can’t help but watch these videos with the critical eye of time and experience. When I went on Honor Flight I was just getting started as a video storyteller after 20-plus years of only shooting still pictures. But then again I need to remember hindsight is 20-20.

Honor Flight of the Quad Cities: WWII veteran Joe Colmer

Honor Flight of the Quad Cities: A solider’s story

Honor Flight of the Quad Cities: The Guardians

Honor Flight of the Quad Cities: Video Montage

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2 thoughts on “Joe Colmer and my debt of gratitude

  1. Todd,
    I cannot thank you enough. Words cannot express my gratitude. You have given us a gift that we will treasure forever. Your photos captured the very essence of my dad. I am a daddy’s girl and that photo of me and my dad is priceless to me. I believe everything happens for a reason and you were meant to come into our lives and give us this gift. I hope it helped you in some way to. My dad talked of you often and always pointed out pictures you had taken you were part of the family and always will be. If there is anything we can do for you just let us know. Thank you again.
    Sheri

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