Robert Christofferson, all 6-foot-2 of him, emerged from the chambers of the Utah State Senate this past Friday morning wearing a uniform older than the senators.
Well, most of them.
"This tunic is 65 years old," he said, proudly, as he straightened his jacket. "I wear it because it fits and, more importantly, because I'm still around to fit in it."
Christofferson was 21 years old in 1942 when the Army Air Corps handed him the uniform "the first suit I ever had" and dispatched him to North Africa to fight the Germans and Italians.
He made his way from Morocco to Tunisia and finally to Sicily as crew chief in a B-25 bomber. He got shot at plenty, but the bullets always missed. When the war ended and his "three years, two months, 20 days, 12 hours and 20 minutes" were up, he came home unscathed and decorated the left side of his tunic weighed down by a Victory Medal, a North Atlantic Medal, a European/Mediterranean Medal and, last but not least, a Good Conduct Medal.
"I didn't tear up any bars," Christofferson said, explaining away the Good Conduct citation in that endearing self-deprecating style made into an art form by members of the Greatest Generation.
And then added, "Although I did liberate a little wine."
But for all the good fortune he encountered in the war, his older brother, Glen, encountered just the opposite.
Raised on the same Pleasant View ranch in northern Utah as Robert, Glen joined the navy and in February of 1945 found himself invading the Japanese island of Iwo Jima in the Pacific Theater's most legendary showdown.
He was helping build a pier that could haul heavy equipment to the black sand beach when a Japanese kamikaze dive bomber took out the pier and Glen along with it. The blast sent him so far up the beach he wouldn't be rescued for two days.
On the hospital ship that took him home, the doctors amputated three ribs, operated on his spine and only barely saved his leg, although he would walk with a limp the rest of his life. He wore a cast for nine months.
As they resumed civilian life in the Ogden area, Robert watched Glen suffer from his wounds and, to the day he died 12 years ago, battle the government for help in tending to them.
"He was supposed to have 100 percent coverage, but over time, money kept getting scraped off," said Robert. "He got real shabby treatment. At the end, he was paying for his own care. I feel he nearly gave it all and didn't get much back."
So when the American Legion Post in Ogden asked for veterans to come to the Senate Friday and show support for a $19.7 million veterans nursing home in Ogden, Robert Christofferson was among the first wave to volunteer.
"I'm here, really, for my brother," he said, standing ramrod straight in that old distinguished tunic of his. "I'm doing this in his memory. I don't want any more veterans to suffer like he did, with nearly no support."
Asked how he thought his brother would react to what he was doing, Christofferson smiled a wry World War II vintage smile."He'd say 'thanks, I needed that a while ago'".
Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.