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Opinion | My grandfather’s grave is off limits – one soldier’s story

Veterans Day, ironically also my birthday, is the time of the year when I reflect on how I arrived where I am and how my family struggled to make that possible, despite some detours along the way.

In World War I my grandfather, William Robison, left a big part of his emotional wellbeing in the war trenches of France as a US Army soldier who endured some of the worst of that conflict. He returned home experiencing “shell shock,” the common term then applied to combat soldiers with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Phillip Robinson
Phillip Robinson is a retired veterinarian who worked as the director of the veterinary medicine program at the San Diego Zoo. He lives near Higgins Lake. (Courtesy photo)

His military induction from Rhinelander, Wisc., took place quickly and the Army recruiter misspelled his name as Robinson. They didn’t have time and resources to correct that on the fly so he fought and served as William Robinson. Upon returning home, amidst the turmoil of his mental health challenges, he was given a small disabled soldier pension. He became a lifelong alcoholic and was unable to reliably hold a job for most of his days. To make ends meet, my grandmother worked as a lunch counter waitress.

My grandfather passed away in his mid-sixties and was buried in Grand Rapids, Michigan in a simple ceremony with a military bugler in attendance and rifle shots fired into the air by an honor guard. I remember that hillside and the taps that sent him off. I wouldn’t want to think of anyone dishonoring his gravesite.

Afraid of losing his disability pension by messing with government bureaucracies, he chose to leave his name as the Army had changed it, especially when the Great Depression came. His two children, my father and a daughter, grew up in a low income family setting in Lowell, Michigan. Neither went to college. My dad, Kenneth William Robinson, started as a grocery store manager and ended up riveting aircraft wings for the WWII effort at Hayes Manufacturing in Grand Rapids. He became a union and civil rights activist — what some might now call a community organizer.

Notwithstanding those impediments, my dad advanced to become a United Auto Workers regional director in Michigan and I recall meeting UAW presidents Walter Reuther, Leonard Woodcock and Owen Bieber, who took me rabbit hunting as a kid. I have a photograph of him standing next to President John F. Kennedy along with Michigan Gov. G. Mennen Williams.

My father became a founding trustee of Grand Valley State University and in the 1960s he was appointed by Gov. George Romney to the newly formed, eight-member Michigan Civil Rights Commission. He testified before the US Congress about South African apartheid after a fact-finding trip to Africa. He passed away young in his early fifties — a busy life hard earned and well lived. I often wonder how the son of a damaged soldier managed to accomplish so much. That’s America.

Willaim Robinson
William Robinson fought in World War I (Courtesy photo)

Getting back to my grandfather’s grave where this started…

While well-intentioned people work hard to honor and support military veterans in many laudable ways, nonetheless, everyone needs to assure that organizations with whom they associate and promote are ethical and honorable. As with some other non-profits, a few so-called veteran advocacy groups have proven to be scams or engaged in questionable conduct. Fortunately, most don’t, and only those groups deserve our grateful support.

Now I’m getting to the rub. I wouldn’t want someone laying a wreath on my grandfather’s grave that came from an organization that is non-transparent, political or clouded in allegations of self-dealing. One place to check on veterans charities is the non-partisan, non-profit database available at

Sadly, the score earned by the fast-growing ‘Wreaths Across America’ non-profit is a “failing score” (65/100) because of unacceptable practices involving their finances and accountability. I don’t think that most people supporting them know this. You can Google them about other issues and decide.

Honor a veteran today and understand the sacrifices they and their families have made to keep this country unique, united and democratic.

Peace be to William Robison and to his place of rest.

I will take care of his wreath.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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