Hands On Veteran

John Avery served his country and War II.  He never stopped serving America until his dying day on January 29, 2002.  Avery came to Dublin some fifty-five years ago this week to see how his fellow veterans were being treated at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital.

As Commander of the American Veterans of World War II, John Avery toured veterans’ installations and visited veterans across the country.  John loved what he did.  Looking back, it seems that it was what he was destined to do.

Avery came to town for a Wednesday luncheon followed by a meet and greet with the patients at the hospital.

“The Dublin establishment is one of the finest, if not the finest, in the VA chain throughout the United States,” the former paratrooper  declared.  Avery complimented the “fine physical plant, the splendid staff, the great management and the spirit of comradeship existing between the patients, the staff and the personnel."

The Veterans Administration has played a great part in the program of hospitalization and rehabilitation since the end of World War II.

"It’s not what you've lost, but what you have left that is important" referring to various disabilities, Avery proclaimed.

"Disability does not mean inability," Avery asserted in challenging veterans with the responsibility of passing on to those in civilian life what they have learned in this program.

The AMVETS commander added that vets have the responsibility to add to and support the VA program, to its expansion add the same type of program in civilian hospitals.  In the darkest days of the Cold War, Avery attacked Russia for being interested only in the state while America is interested in the individual.

John would live for more than a half century after his visit to Dublin.  All of that time, he never stopped working for the men and women who served in the military.  In point of fact, it was his military service that changed his life forever.

John Avery was born in January 1914 in the frigid paradise of Nova Scotia, Canada. After his father’s death in 1920, John moved to Massachusetts with his mother.    As a young man, John worked in a grocery store.

The day after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, John went to the closest military office and enlisted in the United States Army.

Avery once said, “I made a rush to the recruiting office, not out of patriotism but because I thought of myself as a failure.”

John volunteered to become a paratrooper, one the Army’s most hazardous assignments.  He was so adept in his training that the army made him an instructor.  It was on  June 6, 1944 while Allied forces were invading the French Coast, that John was giving a demonstration at Camp Mackall, North Carolina.  A defective fuse was accidentally detonated.  Doctors took off the remainder of what used to be his hands.

Army doctors provided John with a pair of steel hooks to replace his hands.   John, determined to be the best at what he did, became so proficient at using his metal hands that the army decided to include him in the film, “Diary of a Sergeant.” while he was attending Boston University.  The film became a training and psychological aid to other disabled veterans returning home from the war.

Legendary Hollywood director, William Wyler, saw Avery and decided to cast him as himself in his landmark movie about veterans coming home from World War II.  Avery played the fictional role of Homer Parrish.

Wilder later commented, that “Avery gave the finest performance I have ever seen on the screen.”

Many, many others agreed.  So did a majority of the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  Many members voted for John thinking that the other actors nominated for Best Supporting Actor would win and that John should be awarded a  Special Oscar, an honorary award for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans. But John did win and so did director William Wilder, best actor Frederic March and the movie itself, “The Best Years of Our Lives” as the best picture of 1946.

The “John Avery” I speak of is more formerly known as “Harold John Avery Russell,” or simply Harold Russell.  For this one performance, Russell became the first and only  actor to win two Academy Awards for the same role.  In the last decade of his life, Russell was forced to sell his Oscar statue to pay his wife’s burgeoning medical bills.  He kept the second honorary Oscar.

Harold Russell completed his degree in business with the financial help of G.I. Bill and Wyler’s gracious bonuses. Upon completion of the film, Wyler told Russell to return to school since there "weren't many roles for actors without hands." Russell returned to Boston University and graduated with a business degree in 1949.

Russell turned to serving others like him.  A three-time commander of the AMVETS,  Russell helped to found the World Veterans Foundation in 1950.

Harold Russell never had any regrets about leaving his career as a motion picture actor.  With few roles available to an actor with hooks for hands, Russell once quipped, “I decided to quit while I was ahead of the game,'' he told one reporter.  Russell did return to acting with roles in “Inside Moves” and “Dogtown,” as well as appearances on television shows, “Trapper John” and “China Beach.”

As so it was, fifty-five years ago, when a very real American hero, with hooks for hands,  came here to Dublin, Georgia to demonstrate to and inspire others like him that they too could make a difference in the world around them by using the hands of their minds, hearts and souls to make the future the best years of their lives.