“When we came home, we took our medals off…we put everything in the family cedar chest and that was it.”
With those words, Vinton veteran John Gualtier, who as an 18-year-old Army medic saw things that would haunt him until this day, described how he and others returning from World War II tried to hide from view the most painful stories of war.
But for the past decade or more, Gualtier has been sharing those stories with local high school students, and sharing his own personal story with the countless veterans he has helped as a volunteer with the VA. Gualtier drives the patients to appointments, helps them with paperwork, and does his best to encourage them.
A cancer survivor, Gualtier recalls the day he helped another veteran facing cancer by telling that man of his own battle with leukemia.
Now, a 16-minute documentary includes Gualtier’s story, which is available on Youtube. First, he took care of wounded comrades, and helped handle the bodies of those who had died. Later, he was among the first of the U.S. soldiers to see the unthinkable horror of the Holocaust.
Gualtier still remembers, more than seventy-one years after the end of World War II, the first American soldier he tried to help on his first day as an Army medic in Europe.
“He was lying on his back, and didn’t look injured,” Gualtier told the students of Kelly Steffen’s history class during one of his many visits with high schoolers.
But Gualtier told the students that when he put his hand under the soldier to lift him up, he suddenly realized how that soldier had died.
“My hand went into the back of his head,” he told the class. “There was a large hole in his skull.”
For more than a year, Gualtier saw and treated countless war wounds. He turned 19 while his unit liberated a concentration camp. He saw countless head and abdomen wounds, as well as men who had lost both of their legs from the waist down.
“I’ve had men die in my arms,” he recalled.
Gualtier has been featured in stories in many Iowa publications, including Vinton Today, The Des Moines Register, and even school papers, such as this story from Davenport.
As a combat medic, Gualtier says he saw some “gory messes.”
But, he quickly adds: But they were nothing compared to what lay ahead of us.”
On May 4, 1945, he and three other medics traveled into a wooded area, where an overwhelming stench provided him the first insight into Nazi concentration camps. Soon, Gualtier and his peers saw the first of the bodies of the victims.
One of the first was a man who Gaultier tried to feed a tiny morsel from his supply.
“He gave me a tiny smile, and then he died,” Gualtier says, his eyes tearing up as he looks into the camera.
See that video below, produced by Brett Watkins, below: