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Lynn Hummel: War is hell and never over for many vets

“With Mercier was a just-arrived replacement from Company F. Without Spiers or Winters knowing it, the young officer — gung-ho and eager to prove himself — had attached himself to the patrol. As he followed Mercier up the north bank of the river, he stepped on a Schu mine (a German anti-personnel landmine loaded with TNT) and was killed. He had been on the front line barely twenty-four hours.”

You may have seen the series “Band of Brothers” or read the book, written in 1992 by Stephen Ambrose. I haven’t seen the HBO series and I’ve just read the book. The quote in the first paragraph is a single incident described in the book. The book is the true story of an exceptional American company of well drilled, conditioned, and prepared paratroopers who fought in World War II from the time of D-Day on June 6, 1944, to the surrender of Germany in May of 1945. Ambrose has written extensively and in vivid detail about World War II in two other books: “Citizen Soldiers” and “D-Day June 6, 1944” as well as five books about Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander during that war.

For those of us who have never experienced combat, the books of Stephen Ambrose should be required reading. That includes members of congress and other advisors, experts, opinion leaders and war hawks.

The original E-Company of 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne consisted of 140 enlisted men, mostly 20-22 years old, and seven officers. When men were killed or wounded to the point of disability, they were replaced, although many of the wounded were patched up and sent back to the front lines. Forty-eight of the company were killed and over 100 were wounded — some two or three times.

The troops parachuted into France, some being shot before they landed, then fought their way through Belgium and Luxembourg as infantrymen, then chuted a second time into Holland and fought their way into Germany.

Fighting across western Europe, the troops went through the bloody Battle of the Bulge and experienced sub-zero temperatures, frozen feet, shortage of waterproof boots and warm clothes, hunger (eating only cold K rations for weeks), lack of sleep, fatigue, six weeks without soap, warm water and clean clothes, fear, paralysis as a result of terror, boredom occasionally and loneliness.

They experienced bullets in the head, multiple shrapnel wounds, a throat slashed by a prisoner (the trooper survived, but never had to wear his army necktie again), a shot through both buttocks while defecating in the woods (“one bullet, four holes” a buddy needled), losses of arms and legs, blindness and paralysis as a result of a shot in the spine. The wounds came from enemy rifles, machine guns, hand grenades, artillery, cannons, tank fire and bayonets as well as accidental weapon discharge, mistaken identity and unintended “friendly fire.”

Gripped by fear and supercharged with adrenalin, the troops, out of necessity, became willing, eager killers. “I got him, I got him,” some shouted. Almost all had killed. Life became cheap. As one officer said, “I’m not sure that anybody who lived through that hasn’t carried with him, in some hidden way, the scars.” It was said there were no unwounded men in the Battle of the Bulge. One later said, “My career after the war was trying to drink away the trunkload of Krauts...I killed. All of those killings jumped into the bed with me.”

One trooper later reflected that, “The deepest fear of my war years, one still with me, is that those happenings had no real purpose...How often I wrote in my war journals that unless that day had some positive influence for my later life, it could not possibly be worth the pain it cost.”

In the end, many of the victorious troops carried wounds with them for the balance of their lives: missing limbs, physical handicaps, post-traumatic stress, flashbacks, nightmares, alcoholism, and for some, premature death by suicide. The war for them was never over.

In World War II, 291,557 Americans were killed. In Korea, the number was 33,636; in Vietnam, 47,434; Iraq, 3,527; and in Afghanistan to date, 18,674. In the first of those three wars, the wounded were triple the number killed. In the last two wars, the wounded were ten times the number killed. The wounded of each war had the same scars and handicaps as the “Band of Brothers”. Some of those wars had to be fought, and some we chose. 

War is hell. These are not just numbers or figures in video games, they are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, grandchildren, friends, and neighbors, the future of America, taken or damaged in the prime of their lives. Let us be most reluctant to volunteer one more of our best for anything not absolutely necessary.