John Palko has seen a lot in his lifetime. He experienced war and injuries that he was awarded the Purple Heart for, in addition to becoming a prisoner of war (POW) during World War II – all before his 21st birthday. Now, this U.S. Army Veteran shares his stories during his 96th birthday drive-by celebration.
The celebration was organized with the help of Janice ‘Monique’ Sklar, Palko’s social worker at Fort Worth VA Outpatient Clinic. Sklar got together with a few colleagues and friends to do something to celebrate Palko on his special day. That’s how the planning for the parade came together.
“I spoke to his neighbor and very good friend to see what we could do for Mr. Palko,” Sklar said. “It was really a friend calling a friend calling a friend. One friend had a friend of a retired fire chief and then a birthday parade was put together with the fire department and the police department.”
One friend and colleague Sklar reached out to was Kris McGlathery, social worker and POW advocate for VA North Texas. McGlathery quickly started collecting birthday cards from employees at VA North Texas for Palko, who is one of 70 former POWs enrolled at VA North Texas.
On July 16, Palko was led to his front yard by his neighbor and good friend, Martha Garcia, to watch members of the city of Euless drive by with signs and balloons while they waved, honked their horns and yelled happy birthday to him.
“I can’t believe this, all of Euless was out here,” Palko said. “I kept looking and looking and there was no ending of cars.”
Garcia has become like family to Palko and helps look after him now that his wife of almost 73-years recently passed away.
“Today went perfect, more than perfect,” Garcia said. “It was overwhelming. He’s a good man, a very humble man. He reminds me of my father and he’s like father to me. I just love him and I love doing things for him.”
Palko received more than 50 cards from employees at VA North Texas, collected by McGlathery, that were given to him the day of the parade.
“Unbelievable!” he said. “This is so great; these cards are going to decorate my whole place. This is the most cards I’ve ever gotten in my whole life. I’m going to have a lot of fun reading all of these.”
Palko was captured in France on November 30, 1943, and was a POW for six months.
“All that was on mind was am I going to live, get wounded or get killed,” he said, talking about his time as a POW. “That’s what was on mind. I had three choices. That was it.”
Palko describes the food in the prison camp as terrible and mostly had potato soup and turnups and black coffee – they never had any cream or sugar.
“I wound up with malnutrition, five men on a loaf of bread, rye bread,” he said. “At 35-years-old, I lost my teeth due to malnutrition –everything was catching up to me, but I was just rolled with the waves.”
Palko is new to using VA healthcare. He just started using services about seven months ago, after Garcia encouraged him to go.
“I was doing all right without the VA and didn’t want to run to Dallas for all the little stuff and bother them,” Palko said. “I’m all alone now that my wife is gone and I needed a little help, and VA has given me the help and they have been great.”
With the help from Garica, Sklar and McGlathery and others at VA North Texas, Palko receives care from VA North Texas Healthcare System.
“It means so much to the Veterans that VA does things like this birthday celebration for them,” Sklar said. “The VA is wonderful and there is no place I’d rather work. I have the best colleagues. When we do things like this, it makes it wonderful for me.”
Words and photos by Jennifer Roy, public affairs specialist with VA North Texas Health Care System.