FORT BLISS, Texas (July 16, 2012) -- Willie Kucera is living history.
Sitting in a room among doctors and administrators of 21st century medicine, everyone paused to hear the names and stories Kucera recalls from his 20 years in the Army -- a span that included World War II and the Korean War.
Today, at the age of 106 Kucera is believed to be the oldest beneficiary in the William Beaumont Army Medical Center's region of care.
"You deserve some special treatment," said William Beaumont Army Medical Center Chief of Staff Michael Amaral, speaking to the centenarian about a parking space to be reserved for beneficiaries over 105 years old.
"I just wanted to let you know that you are appreciated. And you are living history," Amaral said.
From a childhood in Texas' cotton country and raised in the retail business, Kucera found himself drafted in 1942. He would find his niche as a commissioned officer with the early Army Exchange Service program.
The retired Army major smirked at the memory of sleeping under the candy counter case at his father's store in Ennis, Texas.
"I grew up in it," he said. "I was raised in the retail business since I was knee-high to a duck," he recalled
Even a hundred years later, Kucera can clearly recall the small store with its 150 feet of plank sidewalk -- which he had to hand sweep.
"We operated our store, a big store in a little town," Kucera said as he dove into tales spanning the decade of the Great Depression -- memories woven with the stories of a young entrepreneur with dreams of expanding the family business.
From Texas and Louisiana to Arkansas and Mississippi, Kucera would haul produce by the truck full, whatever happened to be in season and whatever his customers might buy.
Then his number came up.
It was Thanksgiving Day in 1942 when Kucera took the plunge into a world of fatigues, hand salutes and marching troops. He admits to never adopting to the Army mentality and holding close to his retail roots with the post exchanges.
Kucera had no college degree, "but I had the real stuff in experience," he said.
Kucera was commissioned as a 1st lieutenant one of 126 men commissioned by the federal government to help with the Army Exchange Service, which changed to the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, or AAFES, in 1948.
"We were our own corps and really didn't have but one goal -- to serve the troops with retail items."
Kucera served in the Post Exchange program before it was centralized.
Today's Soldiers and families are familiar with the uniformly distributed funds of the AAFES post exchanges into Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation programs. In the early and mid 1940s, no such uniformity for PX proceeds existed. The bigger the post, the more proceeds the installation received.
"Our higher echelon said that wasn't fair because if you were stationed in tents up in Alaska you didn't get anything (from PX proceeds)," Kucera said. "They took it away from the command and divided it up so that everyone would get the same amount (based on population size). That didn't make the bigger bases happy."
Kucera paused and smirked again at the latter statement. Ruffling the feathers of his commanders was a common past time of the Army retiree.
Having served both stateside and overseas in Europe, Kucera has his stories of demanding superiors.
He recalled a colonel who didn't like Soldiers standing in lines. "Get them moving," the colonel would say to Kucera, who had never marched a day in his life.
Kucera's experience with superior officers wasn't all bad. He had a general who sought to keep him from moving to a different installation because of his no-nonsense approach to setting up post exchanges.
Kucera doesn't remember standing at parade rest during his entire 20 years in service and admits today that "I still don't know much about the Army."
"But we furnished the boys with the things that they needed," he said.
Leaning forward, Kucera's gruff face turned serious.
"There's a hell of a lot of difference from what (the PX) is now," he said. "We couldn't sell anything over $99 and everything had to be made in the USA. Now they have items that cost more than $5,000 and they offer credit cards."
Kucera retired in 1962 in El Paso, Texas. The once avid businessman took a look around at the business world he had known and realized so much had changed during his 20 years in service.
"(My wife and I) thought about opening a retail business. Then we decided that with all the rules and regulations with employees -- you can't even look at them cross eyed -- that maybe we shouldn't," he said.
Kucera has spent the last 50 years in El Paso going to William Beaumont Army Medical Center for his health care. Frequently stopping at the front information desk, the spunky senior beneficiary would joke, "Where's the reserved parking for your 106 year olds?"
It was just a joke. So when the chief of staff mentioned the news of a reserved parking spot just as requested, Kucera was surprised.
But in a brief exchange of service stories spanning decades of military movements, the swap of history for a parking spot seemed fair.
And as Kucera quickly noted that he would turn 107 in July, Amaral replied, "well then we'll be sure to update the sign to 106."
God Bless him. I can only imagine all he has experienced in his almost 107 years.
Thanks for the blog.