In 2016, I set out to have as many World War II veterans as possible sign my M1 Garand rifle. The reason? I wanted the challenge of competing in a race against time. I was well aware the Greatest Generation was departing at an alarming rate, with almost seven hundred dying each day. Initially, the thought of a rifle used in World War II, covered in as many names as possible of men who had fought in famous battles, sounded like the ultimate collector’s item for my man cave. But it became so much more to me.
I would always make small talk with the veterans when meeting with them. Their stories were amazing to hear, and of course, I needed to know where and when they had served. I was thirty or so signatures into the project when one veteran’s daughter said, “Wow, I never heard Dad say that before.”
That was when it hit me. Collecting their signatures was not enough. If their own children didn’t know their father’s story, can you imagine what the whole world doesn’t know? From then on, when I started meeting the veterans it wasn’t just to selfishly collect signatures. I began to conduct interviews as well. The conversations with these heroes proved to be more than just war-story sessions; they were therapeutic for me. Here I was, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, learning how to live a successful life after military service. Where else would I get a better lesson?
I spoke with America’s oldest veterans. Their ages ranged from 95 to 105. They had lived through the most traumatic times of their lives during their teens, then continued to lead full lives afterward. For some, the trauma didn’t just end with World War II. In the seventy-five years since, many of them had lost a spouse or a child. These men were not just teaching me how to be a good veteran, but how to be a good husband, father, and community member.
As it stands now, there are 215 names on the rifle. These names do not just represent veterans, but legacies that will live forever. The rifle served as their microphone. Some of these men and women shared their stories for the first time. They were confessing things in the last stages of their life to another veteran, me. There was no greater honor. It was time to put pen to paper.
I chose nineteen of the best stories on the rifle and constructed a book, The Rifle. I wanted to take the whole world on my journey. Fortunately, it became a bestseller. What is most important to me is that the book can help young veterans learn how to live successful lives after combat. My hope is that an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran will pick up the book and say, “Wow, if that World War II veteran survived all of that and still came home to live a long life, have a family, maintain a career, then so can I!”
It wasn’t long after the book was published that the text messages began coming in. Messages from Marines I had served with, soldiers I work with, and veterans from every generation from World War II to Afghanistan. The messages were not just praise. The wide range of veterans were admitting to me they cried while reading the book. Some conveyed to me how they related to certain veterans’ experiences in the book. Yet, the most common trend of feedback was how they never got to speak to their own grandfathers about the war, and the book helped them understand more of what their family members had been through.
It took me six years and thousands of dollars of my own money to share this M1 Garand rifle with the very men it once protected. There is nothing like it anywhere in the world. 215 names, 215 legacies, 215 lessons to be learned. Holding it only proves to the world that every day is Veterans’ Day.
Andrew Biggio, author of The Rifle: Combat Stories from America’s Last WWII Veterans, Told Through an M1 Garand