Whenever Veteran’s Day draws near, I am reminded of the story of Samuel Snow who believed an apology was important enough to wait more than six decades to receive one. In July of 2008, a then 84-year-old Snow traveled across the nation to accept a formal apology and an honorable discharge from the United States Army. According to media reports just hours later, the World War II veteran from Leesburg, Florida, died in a Seattle hospital.
“My dad has been standing in formation all these years, waiting to have his name cleared. With the Army’s honorable discharge, he was at ease…and he went home,” said Ray Snow, son of the late soldier in a released statement after his father’s death.
In 1944, Samuel Snow was one of twenty-eight black soldiers wrongly convicted of rioting charges resulting in the death of an Italian prisoner of war. In his book, On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II, author Jack Hamann pointed to “serious flaws” in the prosecution of the case. According to Seattle Times staff reporter, Sandi Doughton, “Hamann championed the cause of the black GIs. His investigation cast suspicion on a white military policeman, now dead, as the prime suspect in the murder of the Italian soldier.”
After Snow’s conviction, he spent 15 months in a military prison and received a dishonorable discharge, which greatly altered his life opportunities. Upon his release, the African American soldier returned to a then segregated Leesburg, and his “dishonorable discharge” became a sort of “death sentence” according to Ray Snow. The senior Snow could only find work as a janitor or handyman following the scandal, but he was a man of deep faith who refused to grow bitter. Although his son who became an elementary teacher in Leesburg said that it became his father’s “mission” to obtain official documentation regarding his innocence.
This tragic tale points to the significance of an apology. Sadly, the ability to admit wrong in life’s lesser matters than the grievous offense Snow suffered has been radically altered by our progressively lawsuit happy world. To explain, blame seems to be readily pronounced in our society, despite motivation or intent in many situations. That’s why fear can keep an individual or organization from assuming responsibility for a mistake or error, because it could result in life-altering financial or professional consequences. Still, a sincere request for forgiveness can be an influential tool in mending any rift. Besides validating the offended party, it can also set the perpetrator free of the guilt that wrongdoing intended or unintended can create. Yet when the words, “I’m sorry,” are said, it appears to matter a great deal how they are delivered.
That’s why the method we use to apologize can contribute to whether the apology will be accepted according to the classic book, The Five Languages of Apology. Co-authored by Dr. Gary Chapman who also wrote the New York Times bestseller, The Five Love Languages, the book’s cover explains that, “Sometimes, saying, ‘I’m sorry’ just isn’t enough.” Chapman and co-author Dr. Jennifer Thomas believe that there are people who have been wronged who need to hear the offender not only confess regret, but also accept responsibility for their actions. Along with accountability, there is the act of “making restitution” by asking, “What can I do to make it right?” This might also be necessary, if it is the injured individual’s language of apology according Chapman and Thomas.
For Snow, a 2002 verbal apology by an Army major general just wasn’t enough. That’s why the elderly man traveled from his Florida home to Seattle with his son in July 2008 to attend the ceremony honoring him and the 27 other falsely accused GIs posthumously, because all but one other soldier had died. Snow refused to let questionable health prevent him from making the historic trip. Unfortunately, the aged veteran was hospitalized in Seattle and unable to attend. His son went instead. Returning to his dad’s hospital room, Ray presented his father with the framed honorable discharge from the ceremony. Reports say the falsely convicted man held the official plaque in his arms, clutched it to his heart, and smiled. With his dignity finally restored, he died just hours later. Like every dedicated soldier with his mission accomplished, I’m hopeful that Samuel Snow is now resting in peace enjoying a hero’s reward. But I wish I could extend the same gratitude to him that every military man or woman deserves to hear, “Thank you for your service!”
Christina Ryan Claypool is a freelance journalist and inspirational speaker. Contact her through her website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com