Black History Month: WWII Veteran Joins the Fight Against COVID-19

In a period of fear and uncertainty, Jesse Wheeler made the progressive decision to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. This was not the first time in his life that he had chosen to join the solution to a global issue. In 1945, Jesse was one of 8.2 million soldiers that bid farewell to loved ones as they journeyed into World War II. Unaware of the war’s severity, 18-year-old Jesse was optimistic about the latest chapter in his life. He had spent his entire youth assisting his family on a farm in Hazard, Kentucky and had grown tired of the non-stop labor and limited resources.

“I enlisted because I wanted to get away from home.” Jesse said. “My family did not approve. My oldest brother had died of pneumonia years earlier and my dad needed me to help him and my brothers work the farm, but I wanted to join the service.”

Therefore, Jesse ventured far from home, into an international conflict that challenged the destiny of the world. Having been raised in such a remote area, he quickly realized he had been sheltered from all economic and social impact that the War had on the United States.

There was also a dark familiarity of home that followed him into battle. Since the Revolutionary War, African-Americans had been able to participate in conflict. However, these acts were always done completely segregated. Due to a proposed innovation, Jesse was assigned to an integrated company. This visual effort of solidarity was implemented by General George S. Patton as an effort to satisfy the lack of manpower that resulted from extreme casualties. Despite the integration, Jesse and other Black soldiers were quickly relegated to a combat support role upon arriving for duty.

“We (Black soldiers) didn’t get to fight. We had to build, load supplies, do maintenance and cook for the White soldiers. At the time, I didn’t look at it as discrimination. It was normal, like back at home.” Jesse reflected. “At home we weren’t allowed to sell our goods in the same places that White people could. In the war, White soldiers stayed over here and Black soldiers stayed over there. We kept to ourselves. I was used to it.”

Jesse served briefly before receiving an honorary discharge after an onslaught of epileptic seizures. Although his assignment ended prematurely, Jesse states that he truly valued his time in the armed forces.

“I love being a veteran. When I wore my uniform -or today, when I wear my hat- people are kind to me. In my uniform, people appreciated me as a soldier that fought for our country. My color didn’t matter.” Jesse emphasized. “As a soldier, I got to travel the world and discovered my passion for trains.”

This passion would lead him into the next chapter of his life. After returning home, Jesse moved to Indianapolis and began his thirty-year career at a railroad company. He also ministered simultaneously, traveling to nearby states to share the gospel. He met his wife, Inell, at a convention in Dayton, Ohio. They married in 1955 and less than a year later welcomed the birth to their first child, Mary J. Bullock, at the hospital now known as Sidney & Lois Eskenazi Hospital.

“Back then it was called General Hospital,” said Mary. “Dad had gotten the job at the railroad company and did not have insurance to cover the pregnancy, but the hospital allowed them to have me there. My mom and dad were always so grateful for that.”

Throughout the years, Eskenazi Health would continue to be a part of Jesse’s family legacy. His daughter, Mary, spent more than half of her forty year career at Eskenazi Health. During the organization’s transition from Wishard, Mary had the honor of sharing her name with a room within Eskenazi Health’s Women’s and Children’s Services, a space her clients often frequented.

“The social work area has my name on it. My parents got a chance to see it on the wall and touch it. They were so happy!”

In 2020, Jesse found himself facing another worldwide battle. This time a global health crisis. In an effort to reduce the spread of a deadly respiratory virus known as COVID-19, Americans were forced to quarantine and restrict travel to essential needs only. Unlike World War II, Jesse was not able to escape the social impact of the pandemic.

For his safety, I removed him from the adult daycare that he enjoyed and visited almost daily. Many of the people there had gotten sick, some passed away. To reduce his exposure as much as possible, we also limited family visitation to virtual only.” Mary stated.

Since the pandemic, Jesse has experienced the loss of his wife, witnessed the wedding of his grandchild through a laptop and only leaves home for dialysis. Life in quarantine hasn’t been easy, but Jesse found comfort in knowing that a solution would come someday.

“I’ve always had a desire to live life,” said Jesse. “I got vaccinated because I want to live.”

With the support of his family, Jesse Wheeler, 93, became one of the first Hoosiers to receive a COVID-19 injection at Eskenazi Health. He chose to be vaccinated at the hospital because it is so near and dear to his family. Getting vaccinated was a very smooth process for him, and he appreciated the fifteen minute observation period that followed. He did not experience any side effects.

Many of his descendants plan to follow suit when their opportunity arrives. Last year, the virus claimed four relatives and they do not want any more losses. Since receiving the vaccine, Jesse has had the joy of seeing his two-year-old great-granddaughter, Ava, who recently delivered a homemade muffin to him.

As the world continues to overcome the economic slowdown, health impacts and social restrictions caused by the global pandemic, Jesse Wheeler offers a few words of encouragement. “Keep the faith and know that God’s got us. Understand that there are some things we can change. There are three kinds of people in the world. People that make things happen. People that watch things happen and people that wonder what happened. This is our chance to make things happen. Be a part of the change that we are wanting to see in the world.”

If you or someone you know is eligible for the vaccine, visit or dial 211 and register today.

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