Saturday, April 21, 2007

WWII veteran recalls visit with Mountain Soldiers

A Visit to the United States Military Hospital at Landstuhl, Germany, 19 March 2007

As we descend from the train in Landstuhl (Anna Marie drags a huge trunk of gifts behind her) we see a handsome service woman in uniform waving us on – Sergeant First Class Wendy Werner, who will, in her own car, drive us to the Landstuhl Military Hospital. Already aware of Anna Marie's earlier visits, she will be our guide –“sponsor” it said on our admission papers—for the day’s visit.
Driving up into the forested hills of Landstuhl, we find an American community organized around a single purpose – to serve and heal the injured, the wounded, the sick service men and women brought in from embattled places, Iraq, Afghanistan, wherever they are. In modern, utilitarian-style buildings and grounds extended out along the wooded hillside, this American community—the hospital and living quarters – framed in the German forest. And, protected by German security guards who process our entry procedure.
My first impression, walking along the grounds and inside the hospital -- of people easy with each other in their various uniforms – was of entering a big family, at least a family-like community, at ease with itself. Whatever the roles they are engaged in, theirs is work whose purpose is large and unquestionable. And, they have been given the means –a spacious, equipped and modern hospital – to do it right.
Our “sponsor” can be noted here to represent the qualities of this hospital community. Having already completed a year’s tour as a medic in Iraq, Sergeant First Class Wendy Werner is now liaison officer in the hospital for the specialized 10th Mountain Soldiers . Sergeant Werner, young --in her early thirties-- guided us room by room, her rapport with each different bed-ridden soldier suggesting her likely future in a therapeutic capacity.

Then, coming to the purpose of our visit, Anna Marie's official relationship to the Mountain Soldiers (as “descendant”) has for several years been visiting this and other military hospitals at home and abroad, observing and visiting the wounded and sick to bring whatever comfort might be possible, and to bear witness that the world is not permitted to forget the servicemen’s sacrifice. On this occasion, as a surviving World War II veteran, I was invited to be part of this mission.
Also, on this occasion, we were bringing trunk-loads of gifts to distribute directly to the service people in their hospital rooms. In this instance, these gift donations had been organized by Democrats Abroad, from Americans living abroad as far away as New Delhi and Canada, and often reflecting the national cultures (India, Italy, etc.) of their current residences. (This gift distribution in Germany took advantage of the opportunity offered by the international meeting of overseas American Democrats in Heidelberg, March 15 -18. So generous were the donations that two-thirds of the gifts had to be left in Germany for later distribution!)
With “Sgt. Wendy” we went from room to room where servicemen and women from their beds greeted us in ways that showed they appreciated our visit, perhaps, sometimes even more than the gifts, though of course they were gratefully received. My function as a visiting veteran of World War II? Well, one guy from his bed said quite pointedly, “I’m here surviving, because you were there back then.” But the main point was for someone with first-hand military experience to be on hand to show empathy and comprehension beyond today’s world.
The bed-ridden men we visited, time after time, for the most part could be described as “trying to make the best of it,” little complaining: one fellow saying he would return to the front when eventually healed; another saying all he wanted was to get back to his family; one very tearfully grieving how his best friend, in action right beside him, had not survived; yet another telling us that his leg got crushed between two trucks on the very last day of his tour.
These sick and wounded service people are far from home and it is not difficult to discern their anxiety for the future, and they appreciate any spontaneous show of concern, respect and hopefulness, even in an unsolicited, “Hi, how d’y’feel?” But note, we couldn’t be there at all without our “sponsor” Sgt. Wendy and the special status of Anna Marie –maybe, maybe I’d be welcome as a vet – the military doesn’t want too many people wandering around its bailiwicks. But the hospital staff? “Welcome” they say with every gesture.
And, finally, we are confronted by a sad thoughtfulness, tempered by hopefulness – confronting our world that still demands such needless suffering and sacrifice, but hopefulness in seeing the courage and forbearance of the sick and the wounded and the devotion of the community of people ministering to them.

Beresford Hayward
World War II Veteran Air Force

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