World War II Veteran Copes with Memories Through Golden Age Games
By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
BIRMINGHAM, Ala., June 5, 2009 Nearly 65 years ago, Robert Blatnik found himself fighting for his life on a beach in Normandy, France, on what he called a day of miracles for those who survived.
Robert Blatnik, 89, is a World War II and Army veteran who participated in his sixth National Veterans Golden Age Games in Birmingham, Ala., in June 2009. He credits the games and the Department of Veterans Affairs for helping him deal with his combat experiences in North Africa and Europe. DoD photo by Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Today, Blatnik talks openly about the U.S. and allied invasion on June 6, 1944, as well as other World War II campaigns he was part of. He explains the amphibious landings, the paratroopers overhead, and how, even after all these years, he’s still amazed that he lived to tell his experiences. However, it took almost 60 years of harboring those memories before he could ever really open up, he said.
“Up until about six years ago, I couldn’t even talk about it,” the retired soldier said of his D-Day and World War II experiences. “It was only when I got involved with the [Department of Veterans Affairs] and Golden Age Games that I was able to relate and talk about things.”
The VA and National Veterans Golden Age Games have given Blatnik an outlet and release for his painful memories. Meeting fellow World War II veterans, as well as veterans from later wars, has showed him that he’s not alone, the Rowlett, Texas, native said. He’s learned that other veterans have gone through similar distress.
“I’ve met these guys from all over the country who’ve been through all kinds of things,” he said. “And going to the VA and taking part in the games has kind of opened me up a little bit.”
The energetic 89-year-old talks easily about being missing in action for four days in a North African desert, and says proudly that Gen. George S. Patton wouldn’t fight the Germans in Sicily without Blatnik’s 1st Infantry Division. He’ll tell you how nothing in the world ever will compare to the barrage of German artillery he encountered on D-Day.
Blatnik admits to suffering the occasional flashback of combat or random bout of anger, but the Golden Age Games keep him focused, he said.
“The games are great for guys like me,” he said. “There’s no better therapy in the world than training for and competing in the Golden Age Games.”
Blatnik trains for the games all year to relieve stress and improve his fitness, he said. He swims and exercises six days a week, and this year, in the 23rd annual games, he participated in the shot put, discus, shuffleboard and swimming events, he said proudly.
“I even bought my own discus and shot put to practice with,” he said, adding that he also works out at local VA hospital.
Although the competitions can be pretty intense, Blatnik said, obviously nothing compares to the shelling of artillery rounds that greeted him and his fellow troops on D-Day. Omaha Beach was black and smoky and riddled with dust, he said. “How the hell I survived -- how anyone survived and got off that damn beach alive -- is a miracle,” he said.
Blatnik eventually was medically retired after being wounded in Cologne, Germany, in November 1944. He retired again from the U.S. Postal Service in Ohio, and then relocated to south Texas where he was a volunteer fireman and paramedic.
He survived some of the bloodiest combat in modern military history, and was awarded the Silver Star and multiple Purple Hearts. He was even given an award in Ohio for rescuing a young couple from a house fire in 1963, he said.
But despite his decades of selfless service and personal sacrifice, it wasn’t until he found the Golden Age Games that he felt a sense of closure, he said.
“I owe the VA and the games a lot,” he said. “They gave me a way to relate and meet people who understand.”
The Golden Age Games are open to all U.S. military veterans ages 55 and older who receive care at a Department of Veterans Affairs medical facility. The games are co-sponsored by the VA, the Help Hospitalized Veterans non-profit group and the Veterans Canteen Service. The Games also are a qualifying event every other year for the National Senior Olympic Games.