August 27, 2012
Name: MAJ Ben Tupper
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Syracuse, NY
Once a year I have the good fortune to attend a national reunion with veterans of the 42nd Infantry Division. It’s a great chance to join up with my buddies who, like me, have served in combat and find it therapeutic to gather around and chat about our times at war.
But what makes this annual reunion unique is that while I am still serving in the 42nd, and am a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, the vast majority of the men attending these reunions fought their war over 60 years ago against Nazi Germany. Normally, this forty-plus-year age gap would preclude our socializing, but as all combat veterans can attest, there is a bond among warriors that transcends generational differences.
My time spent during these reunions with members of the “greatest generation” reveals a lot of what changed in Army life between WW2 and Afghanistan. One of the most substantial changes is the difference in how each war generation has handled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The standard line you get from most of these WW2 vets is that they came home with a stiff upper lip, and moved on with life unaffected by the traumas they had experienced in the war.
So when we gather, the discussion will eventually return to the disparity in how the greatest generation and the latest generation of veterans cope with the after-effects of combat. The WW2 vets wonder why they could go off and beat Hitler with his tanks, Luftwaffe, and naval vessels, and come home emotionally fine. Why, they ask, are my peers, who are fighting a ragtag band of Taliban with rusty rifles and homemade booby traps, coming home with PTSD and other mental health problems in much higher numbers?
It was during one of these very discussions that a regular attendee at our reunion, a WW2 vet we call Shorty, put a big crack in the stoic mythology of WW2 veterans unencumbered by the ghosts of war.
Shorty confessed to our group that he had been plagued by nightmares for years when he came home from WW2, but had kept it a secret. This news was a surprise to everyone present, because Shorty had never mentioned this before to the group, and despite his diminuative nickname, he was nothing short of a combat decorated hero. I think we all had always taken Shorty to be one of those stalwart guys who successfully packed away his traumatic memories when he came home from war.
Shorty shared a story of how in 1945, as the American Army was driving deeper into Germany, his squad came upon a farm cellar that they believed German soldiers were hiding in. Shorty and his men had heard noises coming from the cellar, so they approached it cautiously with weapons drawn. One of the American soldiers issued the order for those hiding inside to come out and surrender or the cellar would be blown up, but no one came out.
Shorty crept closer to the cellar entrance, removing a grenade from its carrying pouch, and prepared to toss it into the cellar. At the very moment, like the proverbial “bat out of hell," a German woman came vaulting out of the dark cellar, followed by her children.
Shorty’s memory of the woman he almost killed was intimate. He described her tears that mixed with the farm cellar’s dirt and painted her cheeks a shade of muddy brown. He remembered the grey trousers she was wearing, and the smell of urine as she ran past him. A long wet stain spread down her thighs as she fled with her terrified children.
Had she lingered just a moment longer in that dark farm cellar, it would have become her family’s tomb. And judging by how Shorty’s voice was trembling at this point of his story, that was an outcome he never could have gotten over.
While his encounter with the woman only lasted seconds, his relationship with her lasted for years. The terrified children and the woman in the urine-stained pants would return to visit Shorty in his dreams. Nightly, his mind would be take him back to the German farm, and force him to make that split-second decision again and again and again. In this cruel nightmare, the outcome was always in flux, and the explosion of the grenade would sometimes wake him in a cold sweat.
We didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the last story Shorty would ever share with us at a reunion. He passed away this summer at a ripe old age that too many infantrymen from our division never lived to see.
We knew Shorty had been battling a handful of debilitating medical ailments for years, and it impressed everyone that he still had the stamina to travel across the country every year to reunite with his wartime buddies. But for me, what stood out most was Shorty’s example of resilience; a man who stared down terminal illness, the German Army, and the equally formidable ghosts of war, and lived to tell the tale.