ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Before he turned 21, Thomas Grasser had seen more horrors, braved more dangers, helped save more lives than many men could imagine doing in many lifetimes.
Sworn into the U.S. Army on June 17, 1943, just days after graduating from high school in Wisconsin, Grasser was on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, by July 1944 and soon driving an Army ambulance through some of the bloodiest fighting, including the Battle of the Bulge, in the European Theater of World War II.
His unit, the 593rd Motor Ambulance Company, attached to Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army, evacuated 25,000 patients between Omaha Beach and Aichach, Germany, and participated in the liberation of the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau in Germany.
For his service to his country and to France, Grasser, 90, was awarded the Bronze Star and the French Legion of Honour during ceremonies Wednesday at Kirtland Air Force Base.
“I take this very humbly for all the men and women who serve their country,” Grasser said at the ceremony, attended by more than 70 people – family, friends, military personnel and representatives of state, local and federal government. “Humbly, I take this for all veterans who have passed on and could not be here.”
Grasser, a New Mexico resident since 1949, had been decorated during his World War II service. But more than a year ago, while he was hospitalized here in Albuquerque, his daughter, Linda Hall, decided she should track down his military records in Wisconsin. While reviewing his records, a veterans services official in Wisconsin determined that Grasser was eligible for an upgrade to the Bronze Star and was also qualified for French Legion of Honour.
The Bronze Star, the fourth highest federal military medal, is presented for combat heroism or meritorious service. Brig. Gen. Andrew E. Salas, the adjutant general of New Mexico, pinned the medal on Grasser.
Perry Bendicksen, honorary consul of France in New Mexico, presented Grasser with the Legion of Honour, for service to France and its people. The medal comes with a knighthood.
Grasser moved to New Mexico to study art at a school then located on Canyon Road in Santa Fe. He ended up working for and retiring from Sears, Roebuck & Company department stores.
But his military career did not end with his Army service during World War II. He served with the U.S. Navy Reserves from 1947 until 1955 and then joined the New Mexico National Guard and served until 1976, when he retired with the rank of sergeant first class.
These days, he volunteers at the visitors information center in Albuquerque’s Old Town.
“He did not put up his boots and say, ‘I’m done,’ ” New Mexico National Guard Capt. Denise J. Vargas, master of ceremonies at Wednesday’s ceremony, said of Grasser after his World War II service. “He served in the Navy Reserve and the New Mexico National Guard. He is focused on giving back to his community and his work ethic is tireless.”
Brig. Gen. Salas said the greatest hero of the American infantryman is the medic.
“This is Mr. Grasser’s legacy, putting his life on the line to save his fellow warriors,” he said.
Salas said he had talked to Grasser about the medals prior to the ceremony.
“He told me, ‘I don’t think I’m deserving. I think they are just being nice.’ ”
In addition to his daughter, Linda, Grasser’s grandchildren Nathan Hall and Christina Hall Osburn attended the ceremony. Christina, who was Miss New Mexico in 2006, sang the national anthem at the start of the event.
Jovial and in good spirits during much of the event, Grasser turned somber when speaking of the veterans he felt honored to represent.
“I was very surprised,” he said of the medals. “I did not expect it. But when you take it in the context of all those who gave so much, it is very humbling.”
Grasser said he is looking forward to being on the Honor Flight to visit the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on June 10-12. But before that, he said was looking forward to being at his post at the Old Town visitors information center today.