A Burden Borne by Few for Many

My father, Dr. Raymond Sobel, and my mother, Alma Sobel, in their US Army dress uniforms during World War II (My dad turned 95 this winter)

May 28th of this year is Memorial Day in the United States, a day of remembrance for those who gave their lives in war. My mother and my father both served extended combat tours in World War II. My mother was a Lieutenant in the US Army–a nurse. She followed the troops into the Continent from D-Day onwards. My father was a decorated physician who apparently saw more combat hours than virtually any doctor in the Army during the war. And recently, our son returned from his 3rd deployment–he is a trauma paramedic in Air Force special operations. I thank God they came back safely and I thank them, and everyone who has served, for their commitment and sacrifice.

My father considers himself extraordinary lucky: He survived several years of ferocious combat as a front-line medical doctor in Italy with the US Army’s 34th infantry division. While many others died, he survived. He survived landing at the beach in Salerno, Italy, while under fire; the second wave at Anzio, north of Rome, under worse fire; Monte Casino, where, he will tell you grimly, his battalion started with 30 officers and was left with only five standing at the end; and finally being stuck on the Gothic Line near Bologna, during the horrifically cold winter of 1944 when the Germans pinned the allies—and his division—down for months in the snow. He eventually ending up walking (yes, on foot) from Rome to Turin with his unit while supervising a team of medics, getting awarded the Bronze Star for saving a man’s life during an artillery bombardment, and being promoted to the rank of Major. He is self-deprecating about his Bronze Star (“I don’t quite know why I did it—it was really stupid—running out of that church into the square where a soldier lay wounded, with artillery shells falling left and right, and dragging him inside…”); nearly incredulous that he lived while so many of his fellow soldiers died (“I’m a very lucky man to be alive today”); and proud of his service as a medical officer (“I took the Hippocratic Oath,” he told me once, “and so I never carried a sidearm even though I was required to”). While on the front lines in Italy, he noticed how the constant exposure to combat wore men down, and he wrote and published the seminal article on what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which he entitled, “Old Sergeant’s Syndrome.” 67 years later it is still quoted in psychiatric and sociology textbooks. The article earned my father promotion to the post of  “Division Psychiatrist,” the first such appointment in history in the US Army.

Our wars are a burden borne by relatively few, many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice and did not return to their loved ones. We enjoy extraordinary freedoms because of what they have done. We should thank them all today.

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