A Veterans Day salute to two soldiers

Liam Nevins felt incomplete without fighting for his country to free others.
Liam Nevins felt incomplete without fighting for his country to free others.
Posted: November 12, 2013

THEY WERE young and idealistic when they enlisted in the U.S. Army, right out of high school.

Both men served overseas in wartime, protecting their country's interests. That's where the similarities end. Their experiences are separated by decades, social mores and very different outcomes.

One of the brave soldiers I'm spotlighting today, thankfully, is still with us. Recognition for the other soldier's contribution comes late. But the sacrifice he made for his country has not gone unnoticed. Would that it could be the same for all who served.

Living in America

Born in 1925, Leon Bass grew up in West Philadelphia, the son of a Pullman porter, at a time when Calvin Coolidge was president and the nation was on the verge of the Great Depression. Segregation was in full force back then. His parents did what they could to shield him and their other five children from overt racism.

After graduating from West Philly High School and enlisting, Bass got a first real taste of racism at the Center City induction center when the white friends he'd shown up with were told to go one way and he went another.

Bass shipped off for basic training to Camp Wheeler, in Macon, Ga., where he quickly breached Jim Crow law by attempting to drink from a water fountain. As he tried to sip, a man yelled out, "Hold it boy, you don't drink here."

"He was telling me I wasn't good enough. I was dressed in my uniform," Bass told me recently. "I was beginning to feel things I hadn't felt before. I hadn't had these experiences."

In 1945, the racially segregated 183rd Combat Engineers battalion he'd been assigned to moved into East Germany. On April 12 of that year, an incident happened that would reshape his consciousness forever.

An officer in intelligence reconnaissance requested that Bass follow him on a mission to Buchenwald, a Nazi concentration camp that had been liberated the previous day.

Bass had no idea that such horror could exist. He was aghast.

"They were all standing up there holding onto each other to keep from falling," Bass recalled of the camp prisoners, his voice shaking with emotion. "I said, 'My God, what is all of this? Who are these people? What have they done?'"

A guide who spoke English answered both questions: "These people are Jews, Gypsies. Some are Catholic, trade unionists, homosexuals."

Besides confronting the true extent of Adolf Hitler's atrocities, Bass also saw, for the first time, that bigotry doesn't stop at the color line.

It was a turning point for him.

"I made a connection. I was told I wasn't good enough back home," said Bass, now 88. "My eyes were open now. Before this time, I was thinking only about myself."

After the war, Bass returned to America a changed man. He married, got a doctorate in education from Temple University, raised a family in Newtown, sent his kids to the prestigious George School.

He lived the American dream.

When I visited him last week at the Pennswood Village retirement community, where he's been for the past 15 years, Bass, now a widower, marveled at how the social climate has changed since his days serving in a segregated unit. For President Obama's second inauguration, Bass went by limousine to Washington, D.C.

Bass, whose self-published memoir is called Good Enough: One Man's Memoir on the Price of a Dream, has come full circle.

A "warrior prince"

Liam Jules Nevins moved with his mother and two older sisters from New Hampshire to Bristol when he was in elementary school. He excelled in soccer and baseball. School, not so much. His dream was to become a member of the Army Special Forces, so, after graduation, in 2000, Nevins went straight into the military.

"He was single-minded about that," said his mother, Victoria Nevins. "I was letting him be who he truly wanted to be."

Nevins served several combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before taking a break to attend school in Colorado. For a time, he worked as a landscaper and did security for the Denver Broncos. He spent a lot of time snowboarding, backpacking and other outdoor sports.

But something was missing in his life. So he went back into the service with the Colorado National Guard and set about training to become a Green Beret.

By 2013, Staff Sgt. Nevins was back in Afghanistan, leaving his fiancee, Julie Huynh, in Colorado. In early September, he was shot in the arm during a battle. He could have been evacuated for treatment, but he stoically refused to leave or even take pain meds as the fighting continued.

His team sergeant would later say that medics finally got him to take painkillers "not because he needed them but because we needed them to slow him down."

When his arm healed, he returned to active duty.

On Sept. 21 - a month before he was due to return home, he and two other American soldiers were killed by a gunman dressed in an Afghan National Security Force uniform.

The military gave Nevins, 32 when he died, a hero's burial - a 21-gun salute, horse-drawn carriage, marching band and honor guard.

"It was just incredible to see," his mother said of the services. "He would say, 'Mom, I'm just a landscaper.' He'd be really mad. [He'd say,] 'I did not want this.' "

His mother has a different view.

"He had a warrior-prince funeral. It was unbelievable," Victoria Nevins said. "It was just so moving for me. It's very essential that people know there are still young men and women dying there, serving their nation. They all should be honored with this majesty."

"They should do this for every soldier. It shouldn't be just for one person."

Two men.

Two different journeys.

Today, on Veterans Day, we salute them both.


On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen

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