Joseph Salvia (left) surprised Rochester resident and World War II veteran Robert Martin with a medal during a chance encounter at Kruse Muer restaurant last month.
It was totally by chance that Joseph Salvia and Robert Martin crossed paths on a December day in a popular Rochester restaurant. They’d probably never laid eyes on each other before, they now agree, though the younger man, who lives in Milford and works in Rochester Hills, looked familiar to Martin, who lives in Rochester.
Salvia sized Martin up right away: World War II generation. Did he serve in the war? Salvia would make it his business to find out.
It’s an exercise Salvia, 65, has repeated countless times in the last seven or eight years. A Vietnam-era veteran of the Michigan National Guard, he started his own personal movement to honor veterans after getting involved with first the Milford and then the Detroit Memorial Day parades.
“Too many people have taken Memorial Day and turned it into some kind of celebration instead of focusing on service to country, sacrifice to country,” he said. “I just decided to create a veterans medal. A lot of times folks didn’t get any medals when they were in the service, or they would lose them.”
So on that day at Kruse & Muer on Rochester’s Main Street, Salvia struck up a conversation with Martin, who is 85 and suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
“Every day I try to engage a conversation which will cause me to find out if someone is a veteran,” Salvia said. “I always ask, ‘Were you in the military?'” Martin, he said, answered, “Oh yes; I was airborne.”
“Usually their face lights up,” Salvia said. “They’re excited to talk about what they did, where they were.”
Martin, a retired General Motors executive, has quite a story to tell.
“If you were to ask me what was the great experience in my life, I would tell you World War II,” he said. He remembers it vividly and still gets choked up talking about it.
Martin enlisted in the Army paratroopers at 18 and spent more than three years in Europe, returning home at 21 just as the war in Europe was ending. In between, he jumped into France and Holland, lived in the trenches in snow and cold during the siege of Bastogne, part of the Battle of the Bulge. He was wounded at a town called Foy after his commander refused to surrender to the German army. He earned the Purple Heart and Gold Star and survived not one, but two, perilous ocean voyages to get back home.
He’s still married to Helen, who lived on his block and married him when he came home on leave. After 62 years together, they have four children, 13 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. Over the years, they’ve made a practice of visiting World War II battlefields in Europe, and even lived in the Netherlands for a time, “overlooking where the war was. It was just about 30 yards in front of our condominium.”
Martin and Salvia were seated near each other Kruse & Muer. At a third table, Rochester Hills neighbors Joanie Allan and Betty Anderson were having lunch. Martin was with his wife. Salvia was having lunch with a business contact.
After initially chatting with Martin about his service, “I went back to my table and told the people, ‘In a few minutes I’m going to do something you’ve never seen before.'” He also invited Anderson and Allan to be prepared to participate in what he was about to do.
Salvia went to his car and came back with a gold-colored medal on a ribbon. On the front it depicts an eagle, the branches of the service, a torch and some mountains. On the back the words “honored American veteran” are inscribed. He went to Martin’s table.
“I asked him to stand up, give me his best attention position,” Salvia said. Then he presented the medal to Martin, saying, “It’s just from one veteran to another. …
“It’s not monetarily worth anything. … I do this whenever the opportunity presents itself.”
“I was surprised,” is all Martin would say when asked his reaction. “He’s an advocate for veterans. … A very nice guy.”
The two women were surprised, too. Anderson had a camera and snapped a few photos.
“We were so proud to be seated near such a hero and his wife,” Allan said. “Because of the unselfish heroism of servicemen such as Mr. Martin, Americans such as myself are able to enjoy the freedoms we have today.”
The thing is, no one in the restaurant would have known about Martin’s service without Salvia’s gesture. And that’s the whole point.
“So many veterans are forgotten,” he said. “People do their time and when they’re done, they fade into civilian life.
“Lots of times they would probably relish the opportunity to be recognized, but they’re shy. I kind of coax them out of it … by finding them and giving them an opportunity to speak a little bit. Then I invite them to come to Milford and march in the parade.”
Salvia said he’s had nothing but positive reaction. One of his favorite times was when he presented a medal in a hardware store, grabbing an in-store microphone and announcing that everyone in the shop should come to the register. The veteran “just started weeping. … He was just overwhelmed with tears. He just said, ‘Nobody’s ever done that for me before.’ Within a week he joined the Legion.”
Salvia’s American Legion post now pays for the medals, which are in great demand. He’s been awarded Rotary’s Paul Harris Award for his efforts and been named Huron Valley Citizen of the Year twice.
He said he loves hearing the veterans’ stories and getting them some recognition, however delayed it might be.
“It’s always exciting. It’s never routine,” he said. “It’s a good thing to spread happiness, to see people excited. So I enjoy that. I enjoy when you can make somebody proud, make a new friend.”