by Joe Bollig
LEAVENWORTH — It was enough to make an old Marine cry — and it very nearly did.
Lee Satterthwaite, 77, a veteran of the Korean War, sat quietly in his wheelchair as the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth honored him for being awarded the Purple Heart at noon on Nov. 9 in the motherhouse dining room.
“Lee, we’re proud of you, we admire you, and we thank you for all that you have done,” said Sister Mary Carlo Colibraro, SCL, director of the SCL Caring Ministry.
And with that, the whole dining room of Sisters began to sing, “Congratulations to you.”
Satterthwaite, a Marine during the Korean War, had been standing outside his tank on Sept. 25, 1951, when a North Korean or Chinese mortar exploded nearby and sent shrapnel cutting into his leg.
He should have received a Purple Heart for his wounds, but was somehow overlooked until September of this year — 56 years later.
“I’m very happy for him,” said his niece, Rosemary Burton, from Olathe. “I don’t see a lot of emotion in him, but I saw that today.”
Although being awarded this decoration from America’s “forgotten war” was appreciated, it left Satterthwaite with mixed feelings.
“It’s a strange feeling,” he said softly. “I don’t know why. All I can say about it is that it was a long time coming.”
Satterthwaite was raised in a three-room shack in Mustang, Okla. As a boy he picked cotton for 50 cents a day. He was too young for World War II, but he joined the Marines for their one-year program in 1948.
He reentered the Corps when the Korean War broke out in 1950. He was discharged in 1953 and raised a family in Kansas City, Kan. He worked for a moving company and as a nursing aide for Veterans Affairs. As an aide, he saved two veterans’ lives — one who was choking and another who accidentally set himself on fire.
The Sisters wanted to honor him near Veterans Day, but not only because he’s a neighbor from the Dwight D. Eisenhower Veterans Affairs Medical Center, across South Fourth Street in Leavenworth. “Lee is very special to us because he’s a ‘Nun Buster,’” explained Sister Mary Carlo with a smile. It all started in 1998, when several Sisters of Charity decided to cross South Fourth Street and visit with the veterans as part of their SCL Caring Ministry. This ministry serves the elderly, shut-ins and nursing home residents. It wasn’t until six years later, however, that the veterans finally asked, “Hey, when do we get to visit your place?”
Soon, the vets were heading to the motherhouse every couple of months for a good, home-style meal and games of Trivial Pursuit.
It was their success at defeating the Sisters at the board game that gave Lee and his fellow veterans the nickname “The Nun Busters.”
“They really knew their stuff,” said Sister Mary Carlo. “The rivalry was really great. The trivia was for the ’30s and ’40s, when all these veterans were young men. They knew all the answers.”
The Sisters — many of them retired teachers — could come close, but could never quite beat the veterans.
Satterthwaite is the first veteran and Nun Buster to be honored by the Sisters, but perhaps not the last. The Sisters continue to cross the street to visit the veterans, but the veterans haven’t been to the motherhouse since last November. Many of the healthier Nun Busters were transferred to other facilities.
But the Sisters better start boning up on their trivia. According to Adrian Bankowski, the VA recreation therapist who accompanied Satterthwaite, it’s likely the veterans will again make visits to the motherhouse to match wits with the Sisters.