When Oak Parker Ray Edgren, 90, first arrived in Germany just after the launch of the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, he was still a teenager.
Edgren had enlisted with the Army and went on active duty as part of the 100th Infantry Division in Patton's Third Army. He served in a chemical mortar battalion in World War II, but Edgren, a lifelong serviceman, went on to serve in the Korean War and in two tours of duty in Vietnam.
It was in 'Nam that Edgren was exposed to Agent Orange, an herbicide used in the war that aimed to reduce plant growth and make it harder for the enemy to hide. That strategy "didn't quite work out," Edgren recalled in a recent interview.
The deadly chemical is, however, linked to a number of health-related issues, including cancer. Edgren has suffered twice from the disease that has left him permanently and 100-percent disabled, he said.
Now, a change in state law will help Edgren and other disabled veterans with their property taxes. Edgren was first alerted to the change in Illinois law by Oak Park Township Tax Assessor Ali ElSaffar.
ElSaffar told Wednesday Journal that the disabled veterans' tax exemption has existed since 2007, but this year it's been expanded. Under the expanded tax break, those with a disability of 70 percent or more are exempt from paying property taxes. Those with a 50- to 69-percent disability are eligible for a $5,000 break on the equalized assessed value (EAV) of their home, which is used to determine their tax bill. Those with a 30- to 49-percent disability can get a $2,500 break on their EAV.
ElSaffar said Edgren was probably getting a property tax break prior to the change but it was not a 100 percent break.
During a recent visit to the assessor's office, Edgren recalled his time in the Army.
He entered the war in Europe at the age of 19, and was shipped to Buchenwald after VE Day on May 8, 1945, where he witnessed the horrendous aftermath of Hitler's Third Reich.
The concentration camp at Buchenwald was being cleared of the bodies of those inmates who never made it out, Edgren said. "Arbeit macht dich frei – work makes you free" read a sign at the camp, he recalled.
"They worked them to death, actually," he said. "They put them in gas chambers. They'd say, 'Oh, it's time to take a shower,' and they'd go in and instead of water they'd get gas. And then they'd just take them away."
At the township office, Edgren flipped through photos from his time in Germany, showing images survivors of the holocaust and his brothers in arms who helped liberate them.
"This was the oven where they cremated people; this is the gibbet [gallows] where they [hanged] people," he said.
ElSaffar said he got to speak at length with Edgren last month when he gave him a ride to the veterans' center in Forest Park to pick up paperwork needed for the tax exemption.
"After the U.S. won the war in Europe, he was allowed to return home to the U.S., but was told that he would be re-deployed to the Pacific front to fight Japan after a one-month leave. But after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered so he never went to Japan," ElSaffar wrote in an email.
More information about the tax exemption is available on the Oak Park Township website at www.oakparktownship.org.
* This story was updated to clarify that the Disabled Veterans Homeowner Exemption is a reduction in the equalized assessed value of the property.