What one veteran taught me

May 19, 2006

As soldiers come home from Iraq in physical and psychologicaldistress, these lessons from an earlier war may prove helpful.

I quit premed in 1943 to join the Marine Corps and do my duty in the war. I was lucky to survive Iwo Jima, return to college, and graduate from Harvard Medical School in 1952. Two years later, I spent four months on rotation in a surgical residency at the veterans' hospital in West Roxbury, MA, where I encountered a patient whose story I shall always remember.

Frank was a long-term patient at the hospital, a regional paraplegic center. A straightforward, pleasant, rugged-looking man about my age, he was the son of Czech immigrants. He'd grown up in New England, gotten a job in a factory as a machinist after graduation from high school, and gotten married. After Pearl Harbor, he was drafted, served in the infantry, and was assigned to an 81-mm mortar squad in North Africa. He survived some early battles, was wounded, and returned to duty. Promoted to sergeant, he became a squad leader. His outfit landed in Sicily where his squad took some casualties, but Frank came through unscathed.

As if being in combat wasn't enough

His fellow soldiers helped him keep going. For a while, Frank was able to function as an assistant squad leader, but eventually he wound up at the bottom of the ladder, carrying the heavy base plate and extra ammunition. Frank was able to continue because his mates dug foxholes for him and pitched in to help carry his load when he became too weak to bear all of it.

Frank knew that he was a burden to the men in his platoon. He had almost come to believe the accusations of his commanders and the corpsmen-that he was indeed a sad sack, without the moral fiber and guts to stand up to the rigors of the campaign.

Frank dropped in rank from sergeant to private, with a corresponding decrease in pay and family allotment. Meanwhile, his wife was increasingly distressed by his letters home, which revealed depression and despair. His initially strong, neat handwriting had become almost illegible. She contacted their priest and their congressman who promised to investigate, but heard nothing back from either of them.

Frank continued to go to sick call. The corpsmen called him "a goof-off, an eight ball, a coward just trying to find an easy way out of combat." Usually they brushed him off and told him to see the chaplain to get his TS card punched. A TS card was a mythical document that a stressed GI could present to the chaplain, who was supposed to listen patiently to his complaints, say "TS" (meaning "Tough shit"), punch the card, and then send the GI on his way.

Frank reaches the end of his rope

Frank was wounded again, this time by fragments from a German shell. He was treated at a field hospital for a few days and then received orders to rejoin his outfit the following day. Unable to sleep that night, he shared his frustration and despair with the corpsman on duty, who listened, asked questions, and finally told him to get some sleep. The next morning, the corpsman asked a doctor to examine Frank. This was Frank's first medical examination since leaving the states.

The doctor wound up placing an indwelling catheter for a distended bladder. Frank had full-blown multiple sclerosis. The overflow voiding was just one of the symptoms he'd been coping with while living in foxholes under constant shellfire. After suffering from increasingly disabling symptoms for a year, Frank was finally evacuated to Fort Benjamin Harrison in the US, where he was provided with a wheelchair, a catheter, and an honorable discharge.