Veteran volunteer stays busy

Published 10:25 pm Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Sentara Obici Hospital gets help from volunteers daily, and one volunteer for the OrthoJoint Center stands out among the rest each week.

Every Wednesday, 92-year-old Robert J. “Jack” Ewald drives himself to the hospital to help patients recovering from hip or knee replacement surgeries. The World War II veteran can be seen walking the halls with a spring in his step, saying hello to everyone in his hospital family.

“I get a hug every Wednesday morning from him,” said nurse Debra Hearn. “He’s an amazing person.”

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Tracey Stallard, the orthopedic patient navigator, convinced Ewald to start volunteering when the center was formally introduced back in February 2012. Ewald was a former patient himself, and Stallard wanted volunteers with first-hand experiences.

“There’s nothing better for a patient going through the process than having someone that’s been through it,” she said.

Ewald is a lively character despite his age. He’s constantly tending to patient needs, taking them back and forth between their hospital rooms to their rehabilitation exercises.

“He likes to be active,” said his daughter, Deborah Ewald. “He would be miserable if he couldn’t be out and active. I’m glad he can come here, socialize and be useful. It’s very important to him.”

Ewald is also a regular donor to Sentara Foundation Hampton Roads. He said his donations are in honor of Dr. Kirk Fleischer, the cardiac surgeon who saved his life in 2013.

“If he didn’t operate, then I probably would have gone home and just folded up,” he said. “What I give, I give in his honor.”

David Proffitt, senior development consultant of the Sentara Foundation, and others met with Ewald at the hospital on Wednesday to congratulate him for his service both in the hospital and as a veteran.

“We’re just honored to have someone as dedicated as Jack is to Sentara and the mission to improve the health of patients,” Proffitt said.

They also came to honor his service as a veteran. Ewald’s memory was razor sharp as he recalled his brutal past in the monumental D-Day offensive more than 70 years ago.

He was in the U.S. Army’s 115th Infantry Regiment, and on June 6, 1944, he was one of 160,000 Allied troops who landed along a 50-mile stretch of Normandy coastline, he told the News-Herald in June 2014.

More than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded on that beach, but Ewald was one of the 100,000-plus men that made it through. They advanced to the town of Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, but the men couldn’t crawl over the untamed hedgerows. Narrows openings were covered by German snipers.

“I’ve got to hand it to the Jerries,” he said. “They had some good snipers.”

After Ewald and his unit had fought for nearly two months in the hedgerows, the 9th SS Panzer Division captured Ewald and others in his company, according to the article. He spent nine months in four different German prisoner-of-war camps.

Russians liberated the last camp, and the POWs were terrified of being brought into Russia with little hope of return, Ewald said. He and two of his comrades — one from Kentucky and the other West Virginia — escaped under the fence during a German strafing attack.

“They weren’t very smart. I mean, they went with me, and that made them dumb,” he said with a laugh.

Ewald and his comrades then faced a 60-mile hike to the American line. They passed through several towns before coming across a Shell gas station. The old man and woman in the building allowed them to sleep in the barn out the back.

They piled into the hayloft, their stomachs swollen from barrels of dry oats washed down with water. Then they were discovered by three Russians. The senior of the three, a lieutenant, wanted them taken back to Russia.

Luckily, Ewald managed to convince the sergeant that he knew an uncle of his in Chicago. His bluff worked, and the sergeant lobbied for their freedom.

“The lieutenant was getting ready to pull his pistol out, and the sergeant reached down and put his hand on his pistol,” Ewald said in the article. The standoff ended peacefully, and the Russians left them.

He worked for the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company for 36 years after he made it home. He married Helen Ewald and designed his house on Bennetts Pasture Road.

He’s had his left knee replaced twice and broke his hip in a fall a few years ago. But he still takes care of his yard and keeps his Wednesday obligations.

“He’s such an inspiration to staff and to patients,” Stallard said. “It’s not Wednesday unless Jack is here.”