Friday, July 27, 2007

10th Mountain Division legacy lives on through brigade surgeon

Spc. Chris McCann
2nd BCT, 10th Mtn. Div. (LI) PAO

CAMP STRIKER, Iraq — The 10th Mountain Division’s song recalls the unit’s “glorious history” in World War II. Fort Drum, N.Y., the division’s home, has streets named Lake Garda, Riva Ridge, and Mount Belvedere, after major battles in the Italian campaign. But all of that can seem distant to today’s Soldiers.
Maj. Joshua Sparling, surgeon for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), is a 10th Mountain “legacy” whose grandfather fought on Riva Ridge and Belvedere. And it’s almost an accident he is with the division.
Sparling, a native of Raymond, Maine, has been with the 10th Mtn. Div. twice, strangely enough. He joined the Army in 1996 as a reservist during medical school for four years. In September of 2001, while serving as a general medical officer at the Pentagon, he was attached to part of the division during a rotation to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La. Due to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the deployment schedule changed, and Sparling went back to the Pentagon. After his dermatology residency at Walter Reed Army Medical Center – which ended in July of 2006 – he came to Fort Drum, where he worked at the Guthrie Clinic. He volunteered for a deployment, and was chosen to join the 2nd BCT.
Sparling’s grandfather, Herbert Colburn, was an avid skier. When the 10th Mountain Division was founded and ski troops needed, Colburn – then 25 – volunteered for duty. He left in 1943, spending over a year in training at Camp Hale, Colo., and then deploying to Italy until the division ended operations in the European theater. His wife, Marion, was pregnant when he left, and their first daughter was 18 months old when he returned to the U.S. and saw her for the first time.
Colburn, a private first class, was assigned to the 10th Anti-Tank battalion, and was awarded a Bronze Star Medal with ‘V’ for valor during the Mount Belvedere campaign; under enemy fire, he placed barbed wire to prevent the Germans’ crossing a ravine. He was discharged after the war ended.
But after his discharge, he put his service behind him and became an insurance salesman for the next 40 years, until he retired.
“I never got to take him up to Fort Drum,” Sparling said. “Of course, when he was in the 10th Mountain, they were based in Colorado. But I did get to take him to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.”
“It was a moving experience; my idea was to get him to see it, but I didn’t anticipate the people coming up to him to shake his hand and thank him for his service,” he said.
Colburn began suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in his 80s, which sapped many of his memories.
“When we went to the memorial, I know he understood what it was and the significance of it, but that might be about it,” Sparling said.
Sparling said he grew up very close to his grandfather.
“He was my surrogate father,” he said. “I was much closer to him than to my father; I would say he was the major male role model in my life. But he didn’t talk about it much; most of those guys didn’t. I was too young to understand the real meaning of it – war was a distant idea. And the last five years of his life, when I was interested, he had a lot of memory problems.”
In a way, however, the disease gave Sparling a chance to spend more time with his grandfather.
“They lived in the same house in Holyoke, Mass., and went to the same church for almost 60 years,” Sparling said. “But when my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s got bad, he couldn’t take care of her because he had his own memory problems, so they went to Olny, Maryland, about 20 minutes away from where I lived while I was working at Walter Reed. My wife and I would take him on outings and walks, and took lots of photos.”
He said he remains impressed by his grandfather’s stoicism.
“Those people had an attitude that it was a terrible thing that happened, but they were back and moving on,” Sparling said. “We lost a lot of historical data because of that, I think; although there’s been an effort in the last decade to rectify that. But mostly it’s too late.
“Seven years or so ago, my brother videotaped my grandfather and asked him about the war, and he was very open about it. It may have been the Alzheimer’s, but he told us things that no one in the family had known before, like that he’d shot at someone and thought he saw them get hit, and that that had weighed on him.”
Colburn also revealed a side of the war that Sparling finds similar to the conflict he’s in.
“He said the worst part on Riva Ridge was that the enemy would shoot mortars every night at exactly the same time, and it was a powerful psychological weapon. The Americans would sit there, knowing that in fifteen minutes the mortars would start and someone would die, and who it would be was just a roll of the dice. I think the corollary is improvised explosive devices in Iraq; it has the same psychological effect, having no control over the environment. If it blows up, it could do nothing, or it could kill you.”
Another rough part for his grandparents, he said, was the mail.
“Here, I can e-mail my wife and call her almost every day. My grandmother would go weeks or months without hearing from her husband, no word at all, and she wouldn’t know whether it was just because the mail was slow or if something had happened to him. And then she would get eight letters all at once, because the mail would build up before they sent it out.”
Sparling and his grandfather are the only two in their extended family to join the Army, and Sparling said it’s very strange that he is now in the same division.
“The odds are so slim,” he said. “I’m a dermatologist, and Fort Drum only got a position for a dermatologist five years ago. If I’d joined earlier, or if my predecessor had not finished his assignment there, it wouldn’t have happened. And there are very few dermatologists that are deployed.”
Sparling said he still has his grandfather’s army jacket with the patches and rank insignia.
“The unit patch is exactly the same as the one I have on,” Sparling said with a smile. He said he plans to go to the veterans’ ceremony on Whiteface Mountain, near Fort Drum, when he returns from deployment.

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