101-year-old veteran beats two pandemics

Milton Zaczek, a 101-year-old Army veteran, has survived two global pandemics – the Spanish flu and COVID-19. (Courtesy photograph)

PRESCOTT, Ariz.–At 101 years old, Milton Zaczek, a World War II veteran, has done something very few have: survived two global pandemics.

In November, the centenarian tested positive for COVID-19 after checking in at the emergency department at the Northern Arizona Health Care System in Prescott, shortly after his birthday.

To date, there have been more than half a million coronavirus cases in Arizona, which has resulted in 10,000 deaths.

For Zaczek, it was a battle he was already familiar with fighting. The recent diagnosis went full-circle to the early days of his childhood growing up, when in 1919 he survived the Spanish flu when he was less than a year old.

“My brother was taking care of me while my parents were working,” he said, recalling his first bout with a global pandemic. “He was 20 years old, and I got very sick. He wrapped me in a blanket and rushed me to the clinic down the block.”

World War II
Years later, Zaczek grew up in Maryland, where his daughter still lives, and occupied his early years with softball and sports, he said. It wasn’t until the early 1940s when he left home under the cloth of the U.S. Army.

From 1941 to 1945, Zaczek served as an infantryman, fighting on the frontlines of World War II, a role he looks back on “like it was yesterday,” he said in an interview Thursday.

“I can clearly remember fighting against the Japanese,” he added. “They opened up with a machine gun on my squad. The guy next to me was shot, and I pulled him out of the line of fire and did what I could until the medics arrived.”

Once the Soldier was pulled to safety, Zaczek applied a tourniquet on him until medics arrived, he said. Years later, the wounded Soldier thanked Zaczek for saving his life.

Milton Zaczek, a 101-year-old Spanish flu and COVID-19 survivor, can be seen here as an infantryman with the 158th Infantry Regiment, or the “Bushmasters,” during World War II. (Courtesy photograph)

In addition to his tour in Japan, he also served in Australia, New Guinea, the Panama Canal, Germany, and the Philippines.

While in the Philippines, Zaczek and the 158th Infantry Regiment — nicknamed “The Bushmasters” — were ordered to overtake an enemy’s mountainside position. At the time, the Japanese had 16-foot, 300-pound, artillery cannons able to fire rounds up to 9 miles away, he said.

With the deck stacked against them, the Bushmasters took the huge mountain, he said, regarding the mission in the Philippines. “Our team completed the mission and saved a nearby village. My unit received a presidential citation for our actions.”

Fast forward to 2020, and the veteran was planning to spend time with a friend before feeling unwell. Despite taking precautions to avoid the airborne threat, he came down with the coronavirus.

Although falling sick with COVID-19 can be scary for anyone, he said, it was a process he maintained a positive outlook on. “I do not fear anything because I put my trust in the Lord.”

In fact, Dr. Kara Johnson, his primary care provider, said she “loved working with Milton [because] he has given me hope. He has helped me see that we all can push through and live our lives.”

“People are fragile in their everyday lives and feel like they have to do it alone, but they don’t,” Zaczek said. “They can ask for help, hang in there, and hope for the best. Many people have a defeated attitude, but there is hope.”

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