Robert Hitt Neil column 7-6-12

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 6, 2012

Thank a vet for freedom

Several readers agreed with my warning last week, that my snake-shooting column was gruesome, perhaps unnecessarily so. I said that out front.

But as I was debating whether to finish the story thataway (the way it happened), it occurred to me that the next week was going to be the Fofa July week, and that there was a parallel, from men and women in combat.

Betsy’s daddy went through the worst part of World War One, the trench combat and the legendary Ardennes Forest and Belleau Wood battles. He never talked about the horrors of war after returning home safely, which is the usual story with combat veterans.

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We just need to forget the bad stuff, put it out of our minds and go on with life.  In my opinion, if one lets that kind of stuff rattle around in one’s mind, it will drive one crazy eventually.

Here’s a sad stat for you: in Vietnam, a war which we lost and returning servicemen were sometimes spit on, a useless war in which we lost about 60,000 Americans over a period of about a dozen years from the time we first sent in American “Advisors”; in the next dozen years after we pulled out (my old ship, the USS Okinawa helicopter carrier, was the last to leave Saigon Bay) more than 60,000 Vietnam veterans committed suicide.

Was it because we fought in a losing cause? WWII vets came home to parades; I think I still have my letter from the Department of Defense (USA DOD!) advising that returning servicemen should not wear uniforms in public places back in the USA, especially on the west coast. I suspect a lot of baggage may be shed when combat veterans are hailed as heroes rather than some of the terms used on Vietnam vets. Well, water under the bridge.

Howsomever, my point here is that in combat, one often reaches a mindset in which impossible things are performed, not for show, but usually to save one’s comrades-in-arms. There’s a rush; the term used to be “wired.”

It’s a state in which I’ve seen a man throw a wounded comrade across his shoulders and sprint weaving across 200 yards of beach to get to a waiting boat, all the while toting 40 pounds of machine gun ammo strapped across his chest. I ain’t patting my own back, but when that boat reached the safety of the ship, I hoisted a sailor called “Wobbly” over my own shoulder – we had resuscitated him three times in the boat already, so I knew the jarring of my running up the ladder and across the hangar bay to the ship’s operating room would act the same as resuscitation – and I bellowed to the Bo’sun’s Mate of the Watch as I topped the ladder, “Doc Thieman to sick bay, on the double,” without pausing.

Wobbly recovered, then when we arrived back in the states three months later, he checked out on leave to go see his family, and thanked me for his “ride” that night, since I happened to be the Officer of the Deck when he left. We got a phone call six hours later from a sheriff, saying that Wobbly had driven off the side of a mountain, within an hour of his home.

One of the few combat veterans whom I ever heard talk about his experiences was an old family friend who had been a WWII sniper, and his company had been trapped during the Battle of the Bulge, so he ended up the war in a Russian hospital, with a bullet lodged next to his spine.

He told a fascinated youngster about seeing a G. I. charge a Panzer tank with a bazooka, but a second tank spotted him, and stitched him across the midsection with its machine gun. But the man completed his mission by somehow going those last few steps, sticking the muzzle of the weapon into the tank tailpipe, and blowing it up.

Coach Wobble, at Ole Miss, when a player would complain of being too hurt to continue, would recall his South Pacific WWII battles to recite instances of men on the beaches of Iwo Jima or Tarawa or Saipan, who had kept on battling after horrendous injuries. We believed him then, and still do.  

Thank a vet for fighting for freedom this week, or maybe even just fighting because he trusted Higher Authority to send him into harm’s way, if needed. Selah.