April 1, 2010— -- For most people who walked the Washington Mall on a sunny afternoon this week, visiting the World War II Memorial might have been just another stop among many historic landmarks. For a small group of World War II veterans from Mt. Pleasant Retirement Village in Monroe, Ohio, however, it was their wish of a lifetime.
One of them was Milton Mapou, a New York native who joined the U.S. Navy in February of 1940 at age 19. Shortly after, he was sent to Pearl Harbor, where he experienced the disastrous day that still lives in infamy.
"Kamikazes came in and one of them peeled off and came right at us," he said, vividly recalling the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as his ship was bombed. "As the ship was going down, I came to and I was laying there with my foot twisted around ... all I could see was bone sticking out of my femur."
Mapou barely escaped with his life. But staying afloat in the years after his rescue was even more of a challenge, he said, as he struggled for years to find steady and meaningful employment.
"Every time I got a good job ... I would have to go back to the hospital," he recalled. "And when I got back to my job, they would say, 'Sorry' ... and that was it."
One of Mapou's biggest wishes was to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., a wish that was granted Wednesday.
Jeremy Bloom's Wish of a Lifetime -- a nonprofit organization founded by the two-time Olympian and former NFL wide receiver that bears his name -- honored a group of veterans by granting them the opportunity to take an emotional journey through the World War II Memorial in the nation's capital.
The plight of some senior, low-income veterans is unfortunate, many of them unable to find work or keep steady employment, group executive director Deirdre Moynihan said.
"I'm embarrassed to be an American when that happens," she said. "They don't expect [accolades] and they don't ask for anything, but maybe they shouldn't have to ask. Maybe we should offer. Maybe we should all be standing there and say, 'What is it you need?'"
Struggles of the 'Greatest Generation'
Jobs aren't the only thing these veterans are concerned about losing. For many of them, as well as the organization's staff, the "greatest generation" seems to be overlooked and underappreciated by today's youth, seemingly losing hearts and minds as time goes on.
"I think society has changed," said June McFeeters, a former U.S. Civil Army staff sergeant nurse who served along with husband Harold in WWII. "They're taught so differently in our colleges now since Vietnam. ... I don't think they realize the struggles we went through."
Mapou shared similar sentiments. "I went to one of the schools in Columbus and was giving talks about Pearl Harbor, and the first thing I asked them was, 'Do you know where Pearl Harbor is?' And not one of them knew where Pearl Harbor was," he said. "Schools don't teach them. They don't teach that stuff."
That's the reason, Bloom said, he is reaching out to senior veterans.
"I really wanted to start an organization that created some cultural shift away from that," Bloom, 27, said. "There's so much attention brought to youth, and fame, and fortune, and a lot of times the 'greatest generation' ever goes un-thought about and un-thanked."
But even if awareness of the contributions of veterans such as Mapou and McFeeters may be fading, it wasn't enough to cast a cloud over their special day.
Granting such a simple wish meant the world to the proud WWII veterans.
"It just seems like a miracle that has developed out of depression for me," McFeeters said. "I've always felt really blessed and have always been so thankful to have lived through the 'greatest generation.'"