Toby Harnden, the Times of London reporter who has covered war with the troops and United States politics with equanimity, tweeted on Wednesday: "Trumpeter, food blogger, actress, golfer get New York Times obits today but this man has death notice paid for by family." Let's fix that.
Heroes are born and made. Melvin Garten was born May 20, 1921 in New York City, where he became another smart Jewish boy attending City College of New York. Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, greatly altered his immediate plans. Upon graduation from CCNY, he joined the Army and became a paratrooper. He then married his girlfriend, Ruth Engelman of the Bronx, in November 1942. She was a war bride. Everyone said the marriage wouldn't last, and they were right because the marriage ended on January 9, 2013 -- the day she died.
Melvin went off to the Pacific Theater of the war, where he participated in what can only be described as an audacious airborne raid of Los Banos in 1945, rescuing more than 2,000 U.S. and Allied civilians from a Japanese prison camp. He was a highly decorated soldier, earning the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, a Presidential Unit Citation and the Purple Heart with three Oak Leak Clusters for his wounds in battle. He was tough and handsome and courageous.
Ruth stayed home. She was a neophyte in the art of homemaking, and with him fighting overseas, she didn't get much chance to be a housewife. But Melvin eventually and luckily came home, and on October 29, 1946, she gave birth to the first of their two sons, Jeffrey. Four years later, son Allan would follow.
As would war. At dawn on Sunday, June 25, 1950, with the permission of Stalin, the North Koreans crossed the 38th parallel behind artillery fire. Melvin was back in combat. Captain Garten proved his mettle again as commander of Company K, 3rd Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division. President Eisenhower would award him the Distinguished Service Cross: "Captain Garten distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action against enemy aggressor forces near Surang-ni, Korea, on 30 October 1952. On that date, observing that assault elements of Companies F and G were pinned down by withering fire on a dominant hill feature, Captain Garten voluntarily proceeded alone up the rugged slope and, reaching the besieged troops, found that key personnel had been wounded and the unit was without command. Dominating the critical situation through sheer force of his heroic example, he rallied approximately eight men, assigned four light machine guns, distributed grenades and, employing the principle of fire and maneuver, stormed enemy trenches and bunkers with such tenacity that the foe was completely routed and the objective secured. Quickly readying defensive positions against imminent counterattack he directed and coordinated a holding action until reinforcements arrived. Major Garten's inspirational leadership, unflinching courage under fire and valorous actions reflect the highest credit upon himself and are in keeping with the cherished traditions of the military service."
Back in the states, Ruth was dealing with an infant and a toddler amid a crowd of wives of junior officers facing similar circumstances. They had to be mother and father, often moving to a new Army post with little if any help from their soldier husbands. In his 30 years in the service of our country, she made 30 moves -- six of them overseas. It is an American tradition as old as our nationhood. Ruth learned a lot as an Army wife. Her sons and her husband appreciated it -- as would the wives of the soldiers who would later serve under him.
Having served at Luzon and Pork Chop Hill, Captain Garten came home and the family moved around. Ruth took care of her men.
"I never even bought my own clothes," Melvin told Mike Francis of the Oregonian a few months before her death. "I never went shopping. It was not a part of my life. As an Army wife, she took care of those things.
Her sons Jeffrey, an economist, and Allan, a federal prosecutor, said their father was in charge when he was home. But Jeffrey told the Oregonian: "She is definitely the glue that held the family together. Wherever she was, that was our home."
Their sons were in their teens when the Vietnam War erupted. Melvin would earn his Combat Infantry Badge for the third time -- perfect attendance as those men of that distinction of serving in those three wars called their service. The Army put him in command of the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry in 1968 and he reinvigorated the unit, calling it the No Slack battalion. Just as he almost completed the turnaround, his jeep ran over a Vietcong mine, sending shrapnel to his leg and to his head. Another war, another Purple Heart, only this time it cost him his leg. The military sent him to Walter Reed to recuperate.
Ruth went alone, shielding her sons from the news, as they were in college. She wanted to see how he was. Melvin was in horrible condition. His head wound was more serious than their sons would realize. For nearly a year, he worked to recover from the explosion. Melvin wanted to remain on active duty as a one-legged paratrooper. She supported his decision. They had to appear before a medical board. Ruth told the Oregonian, "When I got there, they wanted to know only one thing. 'Was he as difficult a man before was wounded as he is now?' one board member asked. 'No difference,' I answered. And he passed."
His assignment was as post commander of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the Airborne and Special Operational Forces, a nod to his sterling and exemplary service under fire. She relished the role of the post commander's wife, visiting with the Army wives each day, for a talk and drinks. As the colonel's wife, Ruth treated them as her daughters and also as her peers, dispensing advice and encouragement, one Army wife to another.
The first part of their marriage was about to end. He would retire as the most decorated man in the Army at the time with the Distinguished Service Cross, four Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars, five Purple Hearts, two Legion of Merits, two Joint Service Commendations, a Combat Infantry Badge for each of three wars, and a Master Parachutist Badge with two combat jump stars. Melvin paid dearly for those awards, but so did Ruth. She was one of the few women to receive five telegrams over the years informing her that her husband was wounded in combat..
But his retirement in Florida began three wonderful decades for them. Their children were grown and they had each other. She was still a Mom. When her eldest son Jeffrey married Ina Rosenberg, Ina knew nothing about cooking. Ruth got her a subscription to the Time-Life cookbook series, which sent a new book every month. Ina was fascinated. Ina Rosenberg Garten is now better known as the "Barefoot Countessa" on the cooking show that bears that name on the Food Network.
In 2000, Ruth and Melvin moved to Oregon to live near Allan. She was diagnosed with Parkinson's. Melvin and the rest of the family were able to be interviewed by Mike Francis 11 months before her death. Melvin said, "All these things she put up with. All the things she did for the family. She kept our lives going for 70 years. And she's going downhill now."
Following her death on January 9, 2013, the family buried her in Arlington, where all our military heroes belong. He will soon join her following his death on May 2, 2015.
I have compiled 50 similar profiles in my first volume of "Exceptional Americans," click here to order.