Veteran's Day: a hero remembered

The author of this piece requested that we identify her only as “Ann.”

“The main objective of the medic was to get the wounded away from the front lines. Many times this involved the medic climbing out from the protection of his foxhole during shelling or into no-man’s-land to help a fallen comrade.”

Determined to escape the life of a South Texas dirt farmer, he had taken a job at a petroleum refinery and married by the time he was drafted in 1941. In his wedding photo he bears a noticeable resemblance to Mickey Rooney, minus the cocky leer, and his farm girl bride leans into the frame to disguise how much taller she is. At the age of 20, he became the third of four brothers to serve in WWII. For reasons of personal belief, he could not carry a weapon; for reasons of personal belief, it was impossible for him to refuse to serve. He became a medic, an aid man, armed with sulfa, morphine and bandages. He was about five foot five, stocky and square like his farmer father, and he could hoist an oil barrel or a wounded boy with astonishing ease.

“Once with the wounded soldier, the medic would do a brief examination, evaluate the wound, apply a tourniquet if necessary, sometimes inject a vial of morphine, clean up the wound as best as possible and sprinkle sulfa powder on the wound followed by a bandage.”

He never spoke about his duties during combat. He was wounded repeatedly, once returning to Texas long enough to father his first daughter, but he did not mention these incidents in letters to his wife. She discovered the Purple Hearts in his bag when he came home for good.

“Then he would drag or carry the patient out of harms way and to the rear. This was many times done under enemy fire or artillery shelling.”

Under artillery fire, lack of height became a natural advantage. He once described to his second daughter the sound that corpses make when stepped on, the hiss of escaping gas, and the difficulty of keeping his footing among the bodies while carrying a wounded soldier. She did not question him about the war again.

“In most cases, the Germans respected the Red Cross armband.”

Landmines did not. The only exploit his family ever heard described in detail was the one that finally sent him home. When his best friend, another medic, triggered the land mine, he was knocked unconscious. He woke up under fire in no-man’s-land among the scattered remains of his companion, missing part of his own left foot. He tied a tourniquet. He injected himself with morphine. He waited most of a day before another medic could reach him. The Army at last sent him home; he acquired another medal, but the VA would not pay for the shoe inserts he would need for the rest of his life.

In the next forty years, he built a house at night, worked during the day, raised four daughters, went to church when he couldn’t get overtime, rose to plant supervisor, retired from the refinery and opened a small grocery store, where his grandchildren would read comic books and play with cigar boxes. At night he would do his books, watch Mexican boxing, play with the latest baby.

In the next forty years, he also experienced most of the ineffectual psychiatric remedies available for what was likely post-traumatic stress disorder, compounded by a family history of depression and anxiety. His symptoms, when acute, were called breakdowns. He refused psychoanalysis; he could not afford it and did not have the time. In the fifties he underwent repeated electroshock treatments; in the sixties he stopped taking the VA’s prescribed tranquilizers because the side effects made him dangerously clumsy at the refinery. In the early seventies another unexplained incident precipitated his retirement and a hasty move to another town. His daughters were unaware of most of these episodes.

In the nineteen eighties, after four decades of silence and pain, he stopped fighting. Admitted to the local VA hospital, he lingered in a haze of fear and confusion for months until he died. His second and third daughters, after fighting to examine his medical records, came to believe that he had hoarded his medication and overdosed when he had enough. He would have known how much was necessary. His daughters found the idea oddly comforting. He hated doing nothing.

This was my grandfather, Fred Walters. I loved him.

More: description of a medic’s duties

14 replies »

  1. My father was a Vietnam vet. A grandfather served in the Army, and a great-uncle was in Korea during WWII. My boyfriend served, and his brother is an Iraqi vet. I am again and again saddened by what we ask of those who serve, and what we refuse to provide them in return. Thank you for this reminder.

  2. Thank you for a great read. Your grandfather sounds like he was quite a man.

    I was listening to a piece on NPR this morning about PTSD and soldiers coping after coming home from the Iraq war. My first thought was “how did folks from previous wars deal with it?” Thank you for the answer. It’s about what I expected.

  3. I’m not certain of all the facts because, as Ann said, Fred wasn’t much of a talker. But, the essence of the man and his spirit is absolutely correct. This was my father. Ann is my daughter. I love them both.

  4. I just want to say something about the last part of this post.

    I sent this to a friend of mine who actually works at a VA hospital in California. She’s a psychologist and is working pretty hard to get PTSD programs working with Vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, setting up meetings and workshops and the like.

    Unfortunately, she hasn’t had a whole lot of response from the people who most need the help. In fact, the last few workshops she set up had zero attendance despite months of getting the word out through military commanders and the VA. They’ve even gone to parades and rallies and handed out fliers. Needless to say, she’s very frustrated. She admits that there were problems with ‘the system’ in the 80s and 90s, but they are really trying to help now.

    She’s not trying to play the blame game here. She really does think people care and are trying to help. But there is still quite a bit of stigma associated with any sort of mental illness. Asking for help is still hard. After talking with her about it a while, I got the feeling that she’s expecting a wave of people asking for help years from now when the symptoms get bad enough to get past the stigma. I just hope funding for this sort of thing continues and it’s not just a political whim.

  5. Apparently, the hardest vets to reach now are returning reservists. They don’t have the continuing camaraderie of an active duty unit; they return directly to the civilian world; and now studies are showing that the severe symptoms of PTSD often begin to manifest much later than it was previously thought, months after discharge and mental health screening.

  6. Another WWII veteran bites the dust.
    And what a hero, too.
    Soon there won’t be any left.


    “. . . got the feeling that she’s expecting a wave of people asking for help years from now when the symptoms get bad enough to get past the stigma.”

    If you build it, they will come.

  7. “And the band played waltzing matilda, as they carried us down the gangway.” From the Pogues version of Waltzing Matilda.

    My best wishes for you and your family and I trust that you at least will never forget where you all came from and the sacrifices that were made for you and yours and all of ours.

    My father signed up in Canada for WWII, too young, and a Mennonite by birth and upbringing, but as he put it, there are 8 others in this family who can work at feeding people, but someone should go and defend us. The motives didn’t matter, but the sacrifices did.

    Greater love hath no man.