His citation for the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor, is simple:
“Learning that 2 daylight patrols had been caught out in No Man’s Land and were unable to return, Pfc. Barger and another stretcher bearer upon their own initiative made 2 trips 500 yards beyond our lines, under constant machinegun fire, and rescued 2 wounded officers.”
Congress gives the Medal of Honor for risking one’s life in combat beyond the call of duty. That fits the actions of Charles Denver Barger for going more than a quarter of a mile beyond the front line – twice – on Oct. 31, 1918, near Bois-deBantheville, France, less than two weeks before the end of World War I.
But there is much more. The 24 medals overall, including 10 Purple Hearts, awarded to those wounded or killed in action. “I don’t know if that’s a record, but it’s got to be close,” said Paul Bekebrede of Blue Springs, who made a career of service in the Air Force. There is Barger’s service after the war as a Kansas City police officer, including the time he was shot five times while trying to arrest two suspected murderers.
And there is what today we call post-traumatic stress syndrome that affected his life, including the rough years after he was a cop, when he fell on hard times and at one point told a local publication that medals were “very nice and all that, but we can’t eat medals.”
“I think the tragedy of this is the tragedy of all wars: People come home, we honor them, and we forget about that,” Bekebrede said.
Barger died at 44 and is buried in Blue Springs Cemetery. He has no family here. Now local veterans are making room to honor him in the veterans memorial there. They plan a ceremony at 10 a.m., May 30, Memorial Day, and the public is encouraged to attend.
Barger’s resting place has the original marker, now well worn, and a newer one put in about 20 years ago. But that spot is out of the way, not like the memorial, which sits on one of the cemetery’s main roads.
“I said, we need the public to be able to know this gentleman’s buried here,” said Carl Tate of Blue Springs, an Army veteran of Vietnam and a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6603 in Blue Springs.
“This way we’ll honor him at the memorial, recognized,” Tate said.
Life of service
Not every detail of Barger’s life is still known, but the VFW magazine and other sources offer an outline. He was born in Lawrence County in southwest Missouri in 1892. He served in Company L, 354th Infantry, 89th Division in the Army, and he was 26 when he won the Medal of Honor. He was in the Army for almost three years after the war, discharged with 24 American and foreign medals, mostly for valor.
Barely half a year later, when he and another Kansas City police officer tried to arrest two suspected murderers, he was shot in the head, chest and both arms, requiring a five-month recovery in the hospital.
He suffered those wounds before he could even draw his weapon, but he killed one suspect and shot the other three times.
He was a Kansas City cop for another nine years but then “was asked to resign because of his physical disabilities, as well as complications from the effects of mustard gas and PTSD sustained during the war,” the VFW magazine writes.
In Barger’s war, it was called shell shock. A generation and a war later, it was called battle fatigue. Today it’s PTSD.
“We constantly rename it, but it’s the same thing,” Bekebrede said.
Now it’s 1931, and Barger is scrambling to find what work he can. He had no Army or police pension, and VFW magazine notes that the VA found no evidence that his PTSD was service-related so he couldn’t get benefits.
He was night watchman at the American Royal but accidentally shot himself in the leg during his first week there. He also worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Local veterans did rally to help as much as they could.
He died in 1936 in Oak Grove. He was 44. He is the only Medal of Honor winner in Blue Springs Cemetery, and 600 people attended his funeral – but there was no representative of Congress and no military honor guard.
The VFW and the American Legion did have a ceremony with a color guard, buglers and a gun salute, and the story goes that he ended up in Blue Spring because someone had a plot there to give so Barger would have a good burial.
Honor and memory
Eighty years after his death, VFW Posts 6603 and 30, both in Blue Springs, are working to make sure Barger’s story is remembered.
“He’s a comrade,” Bekebrede said.
Memorial Day of course is a major day at the cemetery. American Legion Post 499 will place American flags at the headstone of each veteran. Post 6603 has a program under which a family can make a one-time donation in honor of a veteran – any veteran, buried anywhere – and have a 20-foot pole with the U.S. flag, with the veteran’s name, for that day to line the roads of the cemetery.
“We’re up to 226 flags now,” said Michael Probst, a Navy veteran and member of 6603.
Tate is in charge of military rituals for funerals across Jackson County, a job that keeps him busy. He, Probst and Bekebrede said much of this work is with the realization that their day will come and they will want someone to remember and honor them.
“We spent a lifetime of taking. Now it’s our time to give back,” Bekebrede said.
They said they feel a kinship with Barger and other veterans, whenever they served.
“Somebody has to continue that fellowship with them,” Tate said.