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At 100 years old, Vermont WWII vet surprised with France's highest honor

An elderly man in a tie and collared shirt adorned with a green and white medal hanging from a red ribbon smiles and claps his hands together.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
Vermont Public
Richard Jackson, who is 100 years old, wears the French Legion of Honor medal, which was presented to him at Valley Cares in Townshend.

Once you turn 100 years old, most of your experiences are behind you, and not ahead.

But life still can throw a surprise or two your way, even into your second century.

Centenarian Richard Jackson lives at Valley Cares, a senior living facility in Townshend.

He’s mobile, sharp and talkative.

And when he’s hanging around the front porch or sitting area, he’s likely to be wearing the well-worn baseball cap that identifies him as a World War II veteran who fought in northern France towards the end of the war.

“Well the hat says 'Sons of Bitche,' with my infantry division patch on it, and G.I.,” he said, removing the hat from his head and gazing at it. “And I was part of the 100th Infantry Division, and we spent most of the winter of ’44-’45 just outside of Bitche.”

The 100th Infantry Division spent a brutal winter in Bitche, France, pushing back Nazi troops less than 15 miles from the German border, and ultimately liberating small French towns throughout the region.

Jackson was wearing his hat one day last September when it caught the eye of Karsten Olsen’s dad, former state Rep. Oliver Olsen.

“I mean, it’s like this teeny-tiny town in France, and this teeny-tiny town in Vermont. What are the odds? Incredible coincidence, really.”
Karsten Olsen, nominated Richard Jackson for the French Legion of Honor

Karsten is 13 years old, and he’s a French citizen. His mother was born in Bitche, and their family spends time there almost every summer.

“I mean, it’s like this teeny-tiny town in France, and this teeny-tiny town in Vermont,” Karsten said during an interview at his family’s house in Londonderry. “What are the odds? Incredible coincidence, really.”

Karsten’s grandfather is at Valley Cares, and so after making the connection with Jackson through his hat, the teenager has made it a point to drop in and say hi when he’s visiting.

Two men in ties, one older and wearing a medal on his shirt, stand behind a boy wearing a suit and tie.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
Vermont Public
Karsten Olsen, in the foreground, with French Consul General Mustafa Soykurt, left, and Richard Jackson, on the right, at Valley Cares in Townshend.

Karsten said he’s visited World War II sites in France, but Jackson is the first American World War II vet he’s gotten to know and talk with, and it’s had an impact on him.

“It was really personal for me, since it wasn’t just in France that he fought in; it was in the town that my mom was born in,” Karsten said. “So I felt like I should give back to him, for nominating him.”

Late last year, Karsten wrote to the French Consulate, as a French citizen, to nominate Jackson for a Legion of Honor medal — France’s highest honor.

The process took a few months. Karsten gathered up Jackson’s records and discharge papers, and kept up on the flurry of emails from the French Consulate.

Last month, representatives of the French government traveled to Townshend to present the Legion of Honor to Jackson, and to thank him for his service to the people of France.

“It’s just another day at the office,” Jackson said. “No, I’m glad I’m here to accept it.”

“I'm just so fortunate to be able to be here, and that's life. And I thank the Lord for each day the Lord gives me. We're all in this together, and we try to do what we can personally. So it's been a good life and I'm glad I'm living here.”
Richard Jackson, member of the French Legion of Honor

Jackson is glad, and a little lucky, that he’s still hanging around Townshend.

A few years ago, when he was 97 and still living alone, Jackson fell down a steep embankment behind his house, and spent two pretty cold Vermont autumn nights at the bottom of a ravine.

He was found after the mailman noticed his mail piling up and called a state trooper, who credited the old-time wool clothing Jackson had on for saving his life.

His family convinced him soon after to move into the assisted living home.

And that's where he met Karsten, who notified the government of France about this World War II vet who fought in the town where his mom was born, and who deserved to be recognized for his role in liberating the country.

Jackson knows he's a little lucky, and very blessed, and he's open to whatever else might befall him as he enters into his second century.

“I'm just so fortunate to be able to be here, and that's life,” Jackson said. “And I thank the Lord for each day the Lord gives me. We're all in this together, and we try to do what we can personally. So it's been a good life and I'm glad I'm living here.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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