On this Veteran’s Day 2013, with thousands of our fellow citizens in faraway lands fighting in our name, I thought I’d share a memory from a long ago veteran that might remind us again of the costs of war, even for those who come home safely.
It was a lovely late spring day in St. Louis 1945. As the war in Europe neared its conclusion, Lieutenant Isham Reavis had just returned home on a 60-day leave from his time in the European theater. There he had been captured, and spent four months in German prison camp before escaping. Then, in a period of ten days as he wandered eastern Europe in search of an American mission, he met and married a member of the Polish resistance.
Though he had returned home safely, he still anxiously awaited word of his new bride’s attempts to escape Soviet occupation and join him in the USA.
The day after his return he grabbed his golf clubs and headed for the municipal course in Forest Park. Golf had long been one of Isham’s escapes, and with a club in his hands and the green grass beckoning, there was nowhere else he’d rather be.
“Couldn’t get farther away from war than playing golf,” he thought, just for a moment without a care in the world.
Playing solo, he had been teamed with a threesome of one man and two women. Each were teachers in their 20’s. They had played six holes, and Isham was about as far off his game as possible. Couldn’t hit a thing, couldn’t putt worth a damn. But it didn’t matter. He was home.
The course was crowded that day, and they had to wait to tee off on every hole. When they arrived at the par four seventh, the two women went over and sat on a small bench behind the tee box. Their male friend came over to where Isham was taking a few practice swings off to the side.
“You a soldier?” the young man asked.
“Been in combat, too?”
The man asked these questions like going through a checklist. Isham just answered, while working on his takeaway.
“When did you come back?” the young man wondered.
“Just yesterday, in fact,” said Isham, focusing on his grip as he spoke, trying to regain the feel of the clubs he hadn’t held for so long.
“Well, good to have you back safe, and good luck with that slice,” his playing partner said before walking back toward the women.
Isham didn’t give the conversation another thought, figuring the guy was simply killing time. But as they waited for the fairway to clear, Isham began to overhear the conversation the man was having with his two lady friends at the bench. The three of them were upwind, so their words carried farther than they realized.
“…because he was in combat. Said he just returned yesterday.”
Isham thought about it for a second, then realized what they were discussing. Without meaning to, he had been saying things like, “That f’g son of a bitch. Why didn’t that putt go in?” He simply wasn’t conscious of what he was saying. None of it in anger, but rather as statement of fact.
When I returned to St. Louis I was a different person, utterly profane. The harder you live the more profane you become. “Gee whiz” doesn’t work anymore, and it came through in my general conversation. I wouldn’t yell or anything. But I would be at a friend’s house, and they’d just begin looking at me strangely.
“Let me get this f’ing thing over here. Do you mind?” I’d say. I didn’t even realize I was doing it. But that is how I finally broke myself of the habit, by concentrating on what it was that was coming out of my mouth. You actually edited yourself as you spoke. I had come back altered, is all.
Along with his coarseness and profanity, Isham brought back a certain disdain for civilians, too, people who hadn’t experienced what he had, the death, the hunger, the loss. These people just hadn’t seen enough to warrant his regard, but it was more than that. There had been high purpose in war where each decision carried consequences of life and death. Suddenly, Isham felt out of place, and he kept being reminded of difference wherever he went.
One night he was out with a friend at a bar, he in his uniform, his friend in a suit. The two of them just them leaning against the bar drinking a beer.
“So how was it over there?” the friend inquired offhandedly.
“You know, war.”
Isham had always guarded his privacy, wasn’t one given over to emotions. But his friend’s question touched him in a new way. Maybe because he had only been back for such a short time, and hadn’t really given it a lot of thought as yet. How was it over there?
“A lot happened that’s hard to talk about,” Isham mused, his mind taking him back to Hill 840 outside Florence, Italy just the previous September. “And the hardest was when I had to send these two young boys through German lines.”
Without any intention to do so Isham revealed the depth of his anguish to his friend as they stood there at that cozy bar in St. Louis with its easy air and paneled warmth, the beer going down cold and smooth.
“We were playing the biggest game there was,” he went on, staring at his glass for a second with all those tiny bubbles rising to foam. “Anyone could kill you, and you could kill them. Like gladiators, really.” He looked back at his friend. “And I sent these two fuzzy-cheeked kids right into it, knowing what would happen.”
It was the most he had ever opened himself up to anyone in his life; naked to the soul. He put it all out there on that bar to his friend. He spoke of the need to do what he had done, how his company had taken the hill in a fierce fire fight that lasted through the night. But then after knocking out an enemy machine gun nest they had run out of ammunition before reinforcements could arrive to secure their gains.
He spoke of the heavy losses they had taken, and finally how the two young men volunteered to make their improbable run, and what the machine gun fire down below felt like as those two boys gave their lives so he could live.
When Isham finished, his friend scanned the crowd, downed the final swallow in his glass, then while turning to the bartender asked, “You want another beer?”
Another beer? That’s all that story meant to him, another stupid-ass beer? Isham never told that story again to anybody until he told it to me decades later.
“If that’s the way they see, how can you tell them anything?” he recalled. “I couldn’t tell it, because they wouldn’t understand it. How could they? And I was wrapped up in it too tight.”
The army knew very well that returning veterans were unbalanced. They had been through and seen things contrary to everything they had been taught their whole lives. And it had changed them profoundly. The only consolation was that it happened to so many of Isham’s generation, there was a semblance of unity in the transition back to civilian life.
An Act of Congress (52 Stat. 351; 5 U. S. Code, Sec. 87a) approved May 13, 1938, made the 11th of November in each year a legal holiday—a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as “Armistice Day.”
Originally a day set aside to honor veterans of World War I, Armistice Day was later amended in 1954 by the 83rd Congress after World War II and the Korean Conflict. At the urging of the veterans service organizations the word “Armistice” was replaced by “Veterans”, and thereafter November 11th became a day to honor American veterans of all wars.
The U.S. has sent many, many tens of thousands more young men into such circumstances since Isham returned from World War II. And it has seen them return with similar wounds to body and soul.
But in these times when the young men and women we ask to sacrifice are purely volunteers and represent such a tiny percentage of our nation’s population, it is worth remembering that even at a time when the entire country was fully behind the cause of World War II, even that depth of commitment and support wasn’t enough to secure a gentle mooring for the emotional well-being of her returning troops. Imagine how it must be for today’s vets. So we say ‘thanks again’ this Veteran’s Day. There is no greater gift than service.