Family & Friends · Health

Memorial Day: A Day To Remember Those Who Died In Active Military Service and Those Left Traumatized

Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. is a Gynecologist, Director of the New York Menopause Center, Clinical Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medical College, and Assistant Attending Obstetrician and Gynecologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She is a board certified fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Dr. Allen is also a member of the Faculty Advisory Board and the Women’s Health Director of The Weill Cornell Community Clinic (WCCC). Dr. Allen was the recipient of the 2014 American Medical Women’s Association Presidential Award.

Memorial Day in the United States is traditionally observed on the last Monday in May when we remember those who died in active military service. Families of servicemen and women remember their lost ones in unique ways. Then there are those of us who mourn those who served and returned to live lives that were never fully lived due to post traumatic stress.

I never knew the man who became my father. He was described as mischievous, fun-loving, risk-taking, devoted to family, handsome and hard working by those who knew him before he became the person that I would know. I remember a picture of him, probably taken after completion of basic training in 1943: very tall, black hair with a soldier’s cap tilted at a jaunty angle, fit, and good looking. He appeared very proud of his uniform and himself in it. His face, full of optimism, joy, pride and finished with a smile, would melt any woman’s heart.

Lawrence would have been in his mid-20s when he went to World War II. He was just the kind of man the U.S. Army was looking for: fearless, determined and a good guy with a gun. He had grown up in hardship during the Depression, almost the youngest of five children who lived and worked all the time with the fear that they might lose their farm. Times were so hard that it was routine that strapping boys left school at the end of sixth grade and that is what he did. He was intelligent in ways that did not come from schools and books. Long days of farm work, deprivation and a will to survive were the elements that made him the perfect private for this deadly war.

These men, in their 80s and 90s, still talked about the recurring nightmares, the unexpected flashbacks, the isolation that they had endured after the war was over.

No one ever talked about the war. After, I mean. Just whispers when something didn’t seem right or tempers flared on Sunday afternoons with his family on the farm. I never knew how he became the man who would be my father until I saw the 2007 Ken Burns documentary series for PBS, “The War.” Burns used four small American towns to show how the War changed everything for the men who left to fight and for the families left behind.

My father was in the Italian campaign. That was all that I ever knew. Lawrence never had any respect for men in authority after the War and I never knew why he had such profound disgust for all people in power. The men in WW II used an expression in this documentary that I had not heard since my days at home, FUBAR — “Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition.” The men who were part of the Battle of Anzio landed on a beach in amphibious vehicles and the only hope for their survival was the element of surprise since this area was surrounded by rough terrain and inland mountains, where the Germans were entrenched. Delay in moving forward quickly, inadequate preparation and frequent isolation from the commanders who were making the decisions but taking no risk with their own lives, resulted in months and months of fighting with enormous casualties among the U.S. troops. “The War” shows clearly how it must have been for those men to watch their friends and comrades suffering and dying around them, certain that this fate would be theirs next. This campaign was in the winter. The U.S. soldiers pushed forward into Italy for months with changes in plans too many times for the men in danger to comprehend. My father was hit in the eye, lost his vision in that eye and was wounded in other places and other times with shrapnel. He was given ribbons for his bravery, the Purple Heart, and other kinds of recognition whose names I do not know since these decorations were never a subject for discussion in our family.

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  • CECILIA FORD May 30, 2017 at 8:25 am

    Thank you for sharing this moving and intimate story. There was so much damage done to these men, and even though they were honored for their service it could not undo the losses they suffered. My own father was 4F because of a chronic illness, but both of my uncles served in the Pacific. One returned “shell-shocked” and spent the rest of his life in and out of VA hospitals. The other, who had been a pilot shot down twice, had steel plates, etc. but the emotional damage was worse. He divorced, lived alone, worked at dull jobs and drank until he found AA in his forties. He never remarried, and he never spoke about the War to anyone.
    Steven Speilberg and Tom Hanks produced two HBO series, “Band of Brothers,” and “The Pacific,” both based on real vets who appear in the prologue of each episode. They are the finest war movies I have ever seen–the audience can see precisely the stakes in each battle and how the men were transformed by their experiences.