Taking Care Of War-weary Troops

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - November 14, 2007
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I’m reading E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa. The book was recommended to me years ago, but I didn’t get to it then. Ken Burns’s superb PBS documentary The War reminded me of it.

Burns and writer Geoffrey Ward quote Sledge frequently in their film - on his experience as an infantryman in the Pacific theater and on the difficulties he and so many other GIs faced when they came home.

In 1943, Sledge left college to join the United States Marine Corps as a private. He trained with Company K, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, and took part in two bloodbaths that all but destroyed the 1st Marine Division and threatened Sledge’s sanity.

On slips of paper (squirreled amidst the pages of his New Testament to evade the censors), Sledge kept a journal of the fighting.

The battles took place on Peleliu and Okinawa. Peleliu resulted in the death or maiming of 8,769 Americans; some 11,000 Japanese defenders died. As bad as Peleliu proved to be, Okinawa was worse - there 12,500 Americans died, another 37,500 were wounded. The Japanese defenders were all but obliterated: 131,000 perished. Japanese civilian deaths may have been even higher.

Like so many of his generation who fought in various theaters, Sledge saw World War II as “a necessary war.”

But Sledge also saw its absurdity. He wrote of the death of a fellow Marine who, in a fox-hole conversation, expressed a desire to become a brain surgeon. The future doctor died of a head wound on Peleliu.

“A bright young mind that aspired to delve into the mysteries of the human brain to alleviate human suffering had itself been destroyed by a tiny chunk of metal,” Sledge wrote. “What a waste ... War is such a self-defeating, organized madness the way it destroys a nation’s best.”

And those it doesn’t destroy, it pushes to the limit - or deeply scars. Sledge on the terror of being under an artillery “barrage or prolonged shelling ... To me, artillery was an invention of hell. The onrushing whistle and scream of the big steel package of destruction was the pinnacle of violent fury and the embodiment of pent-up evil. It was the essence of violence and of man’s inhumanity to man. I developed a passionate hatred for shells ... Shells would ... tear and rip the body, they tortured one’s mind almost beyond the brink of sanity. After each shell I was wrung out, limp and exhausted.

“During prolonged shelling, I often had to restrain myself and fight back a wild, inexorable urge to scream, to sob, and to cry. As Peleliu dragged on, I feared that if I ever lost control of myself under shell fire my mind would be shattered.”

Sledge’s mind never shattered. He broke down and wept more than once. He found himself on the brink of barbarism more than once.

In the most chilling instance, a kabar knife in his hand, he was about to remove gold fillings from the mouth of a dead Japanese soldier. A doctor saw him, reminded him of his parents and their injunctions.

Sledge put the knife down. “The fierce struggle for survival in the abyss of Peleliu eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all,” Sledge wrote.

Sledge made it home to his native Mobile, Ala., his body intact. (He was one of the very few in his outfit who fought through both Peleliu and Okinawa without being wounded.) But his mind - like that of so many of his fellow veterans - was haunted by the war.

Said a friend about Sledge: “... he could not throw off the war. He could not forget it.” Flashbacks of the horrors of Peleliu and Okinawa plagued him for years. He drowned them as best he could in study; he earned a doctorate in biology and taught for most of his life. But the final exorcism of his demons came by writing With the Old Breed.

The Office of Veterans Affairs reported last week that one of every four of the nation’s homeless is a veteran - not of Eugene Sledge’s war, of course, but of Vietnam, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf wars. Said a Pennsylvania veterans’ affairs director: “We’re going to have a tsunami of them eventually because the mental health toll from this war (Iraq) is enormous.”

It’s now called post-traumatic stress disorder. Sledge and his fellow veterans didn’t know the phrase, but by now - post Vietnam - Americans know about PTSD and its often terrible consequences: shattered minds, broken families, alcoholism, homelessness and more.

As the veterans of our most recent wars come home, we must offer compassion, understanding and our treasure to speed their recovery. Sledge wrote: “War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste.”

We sent these young men and women to experience that brutishness. It’s our responsibility to deal with its legacy.

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