LeRoy Collins Commentary 148

Commentary #148
21 March 2008

Losing a generation of WWII heroes

The last few weeks have been on the front row of history for me,….. as Florida's Director of Veterans' Affairs. I would like to share it with you.


Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), better known as OIF/OEF, have produced fewer deaths per participants than any major conflict in our Nation's history. We are saving more fighters than ever before primarily because 1. our troops are better trained and equipped, 2. major medical care is closeby in the field,…in theater,…and back home, and 3. all our troops have been volunteers since 1974. So, they fight because the stakes are high, and most of them have a bedrock concern re DUTY-HONOR-COUNTRY. With all the U.S. Armed Services' nobility of purpose, less than 1% of Americans are even remotely involved in defending our country, so no wonder it seems like business-as-usual to the other 99%+.

The mother and her wounded warrior son (John) I met at the Haley VA Medical Center last month were clearly in the smaller group.

Almost two years ago, John took an exploding mortar round fragment through his frontal lobe…about an inch above the left eye socket,….a part of which had exited the right rear of his skull,…and a portion of it was still there!...a classic case of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). With his mother's active intervention (she is a Registered Nurse) spanning the past two years, he has made a remarkable recovery from paralysis; he is driving again, but his wife and young son have left him. John looked great to me, but he has an obvious limp and needs some continuing therapy to be productive again.

I had become familiar with this case when I heard John's mother speak to a traveling Commission on the Future for Veterans, which came to Tampa almost a year ago. Unlike so many other attendees, her testimony included far more than just a litany of personal complaints. Her observations, good and bad, were balanced and CONSTRUCTIVE, so I asked her to write an essay on her and John's experiences with his recovery. It had taken her almost a year, but this was the day to get my copy, which I wanted to share with the U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs (with the permission of John and his mother). After reading it, I decided to send it to the new Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs, The Honorable James Peake, LTG USA (Ret), M.D.

You will be interested to know that approximately 10 days later, Secretary Peake called me to report he had received my letter forwarding the essay of John's mother,….. that it contained a recitation of facts and professional opinions he considered so important that he went through it line-by-line with his medical staff. I met the Secretary a week later at the dedication of the Nation's newest Veterans cemetery ….this one in Palm Beach County, Florida. He renewed his thanks to me and John's mother for her extensive documentation of John's difficult recovery from major combat trauma.

John's mother is no longer monitoring his daily routine, because he can now cope on his own, …..just barely. She is close by, but no longer calling all the shots. John is not likely to ever be good as new, either mentally, physically, or emotionally. For a lad who took mortar shrapnel through his head, he looks great, has a pleasant attitude, and hopefully has a long life ahead of him. There are many like John and his mother who survive our Nation's armed conflicts, and many who do not. We must be alert to their needs because their service has enabled the rest of us to live a life of freedom from tyrannical oppression.

Attached is a pictorial essay from a military physician who cares for Veterans in hospitals on a daily basis; he articulates his work in a respectful perspective we should appreciate.

/s/ LeRoy Collins, Jr.

Blue band divider with stars


I am a doctor specializing in the Emergency Departments of the only two military Level One-Trauma Centers, both in San Antonio, TX and they care for civilian Emergencies as well as military personnel. San Antonio has the largest military retiree population in the world living here. As a military doctor, I work long hours and the pay is less than glamorous. One tends to become jaded by the long hours, lack of sleep, food, family contact and the endless parade of human suffering passing before you. The arrival of another ambulance does not mean more pay, only more work.

Most often, it is a victim from a motor vehicle crash.

Often it is a person of dubious character who has been shot or stabbed. With our large military retiree population, it is often a nursing home patient. Even with my enlisted service and minimal combat experience in Panama, I have caught myself groaning when the ambulance brought in yet another sick, elderly person from one of the local retirement centers that cater to military retirees. I had not stopped to think of what citizens of this age group represented.

I saw 'Saving Private Ryan.' I was touched deeply. Not so much by the carnage, but by the sacrifices of so many. I was touched most by the scene of the elderly survivor at the graveside, asking his wife if he'd been a good man. I realized that I had seen these same men and women coming through my Emergency Dept. and had not realized what magnificent sacrifices they had made. The things they did for me and everyone else that has lived on this planet since the end of that conflict are priceless.

Situation permitting, I now try to ask my patients about their experiences. They would never bring up the subject without the inquiry. I have been privileged to an amazing array of experiences, recounted in the brief minutes allowed in an Emergency Dept. encounter. These experiences have revealed the incredible individuals I have had the honor of serving in a medical capacity, many on their last admission to the hospital.

There was a frail, elderly woman who reassured my young enlisted medic, trying to start an IV line in her arm. She remained calm and poised, despite her illness and the multiple needle-sticks into her fragile veins. She was what we call a 'hard stick.' As the medic made another attempt, I noticed a number tattooed across her forearm. I touched it with one finger and looked into her eyes. She simply said, 'Auschwitz.' Many of later generations would have loudly and openly berated the young medic in his many attempts. How different was the response from this person who'd seen unspeak able suffering.

Also, there was this long retired Colonel, who as a young officer had parachuted from his burning plane over a PacificIsland held by the Japanese. Now an octogenarian, he had a minor cut on his head from a fall at his home where he lived alone. His CT scan and suturing had been delayed until after midnight by the usual parade of high priority ambulance patients. Still spry for his age, he asked to use the phone to call a taxi, to take him home, then he realized his ambulance had brought him without his wallet. He asked if he could use the phone to make a long distance call to his daughter who lived 7 miles away. With great pride we told him that he could not, as he'd done enough for his country and the least we could do was get him a taxi home, even if we had to pay for it ourselves. My only regret was that my shift wouldn't end for several hours, and I couldn't drive him myself.

I was there the night M/Sgt. Roy Benavidez came through the Emergency Dept. for the last time. He was very sick. I was not the doctor taking care of him, but I walked to his bedside and took his hand. I said nothing. He was so sick, he didn't know I was there. I'd read his Congressional Medal of Honor citation and wanted to shake his hand. He died a few days later.

The gentleman who served with Merrill's Marauders,

the survivor of the Bataan Death March,

the survivor of Omaha Beach,

the 101 year old World War I veteran.

The former POW held in frozen North Korea,

The former Special Forces medic - now with non-operable liver cancer,

the former Viet Nam Corps Commander.

I remember these citizens.

I may still groan when yet another ambulance comes in, but now I am much more aware of what an honor it is to serve these particular men and women.

I have seen a Congress who would turn their back on these individuals who've sacrificed so much to protect our liberty. I see later generations that seem to be totally engrossed in abusing these same liberties, won with such sacrifice.

It has become my personal endeavor to make the nurses and young enlisted medics aware of these amazing individuals when I encounter them in our Emergency Dept. Their response to these particular citizens has made me think that perhaps all is not lost in the next generation.

My experiences have solidified my belief that we are losing an incredible generation, and this nation knows not what it is losing. Our uncaring government and ungrateful civilian populace should all take note. We should all remember that we must 'Earn this.'

Written By CPT. Stephen R. Ellison, M.D. US Army

If it weren't for the United States military,
there'd be NO United States of America.

Blue band divider with stars

/s/ LeRoy Collins, Jr.


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