They Were Soldiers Once…


Yesterday was the sixty-ninth anniversary of D-Day, to the day, to be exact.

Today is the eighteenth anniversary of my father’s sudden death of a brain aneurysm at age sixty-two. I can remember the exact date that my father died, because it was one year and one day after the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day. Yeah, I’m a history nerd. I’m weird like that.

I watched Saving Private Ryan last night for the umpteenth time. Helluva movie.

That movie always gets me thinking about a lot of things.

War. Death. Country. Patriotism. Sacrifice. Loss. Courage. Family. Teamwork.

Lots of good themes that Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Hanks really made us consider as we watched the utter horror of the beach landing, the carnage wrought by bullets and shells, and the intense, painful, agonizing up-close look at death that is hand-to-hand combat.

Sixty-nine years ago. Wow. Ancient history, right? Yes…and no.

We still fight each other. Some say we have dumber people but smarter bombs. We send in drones where no rational human would dare to fly. We kill from thousands of feet in the air or hundreds of miles away, instead of making one last, glorious stand before blowing the bridge. That “whites of their eyes” thing is so eighteenth century.

One thing that hasn’t changed?

Human casualties of war.

Not just the dead. We don’t have the daily Vietnam body counts any more or even a wall or monument yet built to those who have served in the choking deserts or the arid plains. School children and many adults still struggle to find the places on a globe where all our modern-day soldiers serve.

I see them in the emergency department sometime. They come in quietly, suffering in silence as they were trained to do. They drink too much. They smoke pot and do coke and they cope. They get depressed. They have panic attacks. They want to kill themselves. 

They were soldiers once.

When I was a very young intern, and later a slightly less young resident, a wallet biopsy was always the first procedure performed on a vet as he (it was always a he back then, but not so much now, of course) hit the door of the Life Support Unit, as the downtown emergency room was called in those days. A purple 100% service connected card was golden. A blue card, not so much. Services were rendered by staff as services had been given by the vets. Orders followed, no questions asked, no cost too high, no river too deep or mountain too high. Semper fi. No man left behind. That was then.

This is  now.

Where did we go wrong?

Vets are struggling to get the services they need. They are dying in droves by their own hand. Sometimes they take a loved one with them. Oh, I exaggerate, I hear you say. Read this.

They call the veterans hot line and talk to a nice person who directs them to the closest local emergency department. Outsourcing, I guess you could call it. Something like that. Admission? Maybe, at a veterans’ hospital in this state or one over. Groups, drugs, counseling, the usual bill of fare. Suicide prevention classes and education. More hot line numbers just in case.

I always try to thank them for their service. Sometimes I forget, or they are too out of it or psychotic or hopped up on drugs to hear me or understand. But I try. It’s the right thing to do.

Can you imagine what it must have been like, sixty-nine years ago, being propelled out of that Higgins boat, feet not touching ground but water, sinking, not hearing but seeing, seeing bullets whiz past your head underwater? Coming up for air and struggling to make the beach just to struggle again for shelter from the hailstorm of lead and fire and spattered blood and brains? Trying to survive?

Can you imagine what it must be like now, coming back from the desert heat and the sand and the glaring sun and the mountain posts and thinking that death is the best option to get you out of the hailstorm of routine life-after-living-death? Not knowing where to turn or who to call? Trying to survive?

They were soldiers once.

They didn’t fail us then.

Will we fail them now?

7 thoughts on “They Were Soldiers Once…

  1. My sympathy on this sad anniversary. Your father must have been a great man to raise a strong, caring son like you.

    Thank you for this moving and thought-provoking post. The empathy you exhibit for your patients encourages me, and I know many others, to put ourselves in the other guy’s shoes before rushing to judgement or action.


  2. Thoughtful post. You’re right, of course. Caring for our veterans is a campaign stump speech for anyone running for office. But it’s a pretty low priority once someone wins. It shouldn’t be this way.


  3. Thank you for taking the time to write this on behalf of those who have served and sacrificed so much with little in return. For most it is easy to overlook our service members, at least until one day, God forbid our country becomes a war torn battlefield.


  4. Diane,

    You are quite welcome.

    Thank you for your twelve years of service.

    You are now on one of your toughest assignments, I know.

    Be strong (you are), fall back on your training, be realistic, and remember that it’s always about the mission.



  5. I’m just now reading this post (it’s been a crazy week or so) and it’s great. I’m married to a 26 year, still active duty, veteran of both Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The “attempts” to attend to their mental health are still sad attempts, at best. It makes me furious and complicates all of our lives. The patients we see are ongoing victims of “the system”. A broken, sad system. And my condolences on your sad anniversary. This past Monday was to have been our son’s 18th birthday, but one awesome thing that he did get to do in his short life was to visit the beaches of Normandy and gain and even deeper understanding and respect for the greatest generation and for the sacrifice his dad is willing to make. Best wishes to you!


  6. Penny,

    What a moving comment on many levels.

    First and foremost, my thoughts and prayers will be with you and your family as this anniversary of great loss rolls by. I cannot imagine what it would feel like to lose one of my children or grandchildren.

    Secondly, please thank your husband for me. Twenty-six years of service deposits so much in the bank of freedom that none of us can ever truly repay him. Thank you thank you thank you.

    Lastly, what a great experience for your young son, to see the place where thousands struggled to make sure his short life was one of freedom and happiness.



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