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Mel Biddle (the Medal of Honor recipient as a VA supervisor)
Melvin E. Biddle “chewed me up one side and down the other”. I was working the walk-in area of the Veterans Administration (the VA was not yet a Cabinet-level Department) Regional Office in Indianapolis in the mid-1970s. A fellow Vietnam veteran had come in to resolve an educational benefits problem, it was my turn to take the next client, he sat down, we fixed his glitch quickly, I was proud of myself for providing some tricks for maximizing his educational benefits in the future, we shook hands, he left, and Mel was immediately on my case. I don’t recall if I was able to speak or not – my mental reaction was, “Whaa . . ?”
“You did not counsel that veteran about converting his SGLI to VGLI!” (Servicemen’s to Veterans’ group life insurance) Now neither that early twenties, single veteran nor I gave much thought to life insurance at that stage of our lives, and he probably would have thought I was wasting his time had I insisted on providing such information, but Mel did not tolerate incomplete counseling and assistance to veterans. I never forgot his lecture about the importance of doing a comprehensive job or of how much we owed to former members of the military.
Mel won the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Battle of the Bulge. He did not glory in killing, but he did to protect his fellow soldiers. He did a “comprehensive job” on Christmas Eve, 1944:
Private First Class Biddle was a scout with the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment when his unit was sent to attack German soldiers encircling the town of Hotton, Belgium, on Dec. 23 and 24, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge.
Biddle pushed through dense forest and used his rifle and grenades to kill more than a dozen German snipers and machine gunners. According to his award citation,"His 20-hour action enabled his battalion to break the enemy grasp on Hotton with a minimum of casualties."
Mel slicked his dark hair back in 1940s fashion. He refused to wear his glasses, often holding documents at arm’s length to read his own extra-large writing. He managed by walking around before it was popular, was a little loud because of his combat-related hearing loss, and “never met a stranger”. When I discovered that Mel was a Medal of Honor recipient and thanked him, he somehow set me at ease in what could have been an awkward meeting. He was good at it. He had a lot of practice.
Mel was in charge of the Vietnam-era “Vet-Reps” program which placed Veterans Administration representatives on the campuses with the highest veteran populations. Indiana University at Bloomington had two. Mel visited the IU Veterans Affairs office on a regular basis, checking on his troops – AND on the quality of work they were doing.
Mel was not happy when he was passed over for promotion to in charge of all VA field operations in Indiana. He remarked, “It’s not about me, but I see another management position that could have gone to a veteran.”
Mel had always refused the Medal of Honor Pension, but changed his mind in 1979. The MOH Pension raised from $100 per month to $200. Mel had determined he could trade for a new car every year and have the pension pay his car payments. “John, think about it: If I pick a model that will hold its value pretty well, I’ll never have to buy new tires or a battery again, never change antifreeze, and always be under warranty!”
Once, in the security of a closed elevator between floors, Mel told of Medal of Honor “winners” who did not deserve the honor. He gave us names and facts which have long since vanished from my memory but the lesson, one of many I took from knowing Melvin E. Biddle, was that no adjudication system ever made or run by humans is perfect.
PFC Biddle, awarded the Medal of Honor for killing, loved to raise roses at his home. One day every year when his prized roses were in bloom he would present a single rose to each lady in our office.
Years later, long after I left the Department of Veterans Affairs, I mailed a snapshot of a BIDDLE AVE street sign taken on Fort Benning to Mel. There have been other Biddles in the military, but Ft. Benning remains the home of the Infantry in general and Infantry Airborne in particular. Surely this street had been named after Mel. He must have received bags of similar fan mail for decades. I never expected, or received, a response. Perhaps he soothed military memories by tending his roses, memories not to be brought up to consciousness except in courtesy to those who asked.
“Mr. Biddle, I just found out you were awarded the Medal of Honor. I want to thank you.” I will never forget him and you should not either.
Melvin E. Biddle, the last living Hoosier Medal of Honor recipient, passed away on 16 December 2010, exactly sixty-six years after the start of the Battle of the Bulge, Nazi Germany’s last offensive of WWII.