“What branch of the service were you in?” I asked him, as I always do when admitting a new patient at the VA.
“The Marine Corps.” he replied. Oh God, I thought to myself, he has seen some shit.
“Where did you serve?” I asked, again as I always do.
He paused just a second. “Iwo Jima” he said, and I saw his eyes get shiny with tears. I gripped his hand.
“Thank you,” I said, “thank you for your service”.
Mr R didn’t stay long, he recovered quickly and was ready to get back to splitting wood on his farm in a few days. Like most of the WWII vets, though, he grew on me. When he was getting ready to be discharged, I sat down with him to go over his medications and instructions for follow-up. When we were done, I stood up and shook his hand. “It’s been a pleasure,” I said, “you take care of yourself.”
He got misty-eyed again and said “Well, this is a better place than where I was 63 years ago.” I sat down again and took his hand. “I’m glad you’re here now Mr R, I’m glad you made it.” He smiled and said he was glad too.
“Just one story” he said a little sheepishly, asking me to indulge him. I was happy to.
“Well, my best friend in the service got wounded when we were landing at Iwo Jima. He was a skinny little guy, and he took a piece of shrapnel in the shoulder. I made him stop and I bandaged it up as best as I could and we kept on going. A few days later, he told me that wound was starting to hurt pretty bad. We got the corpsman to look at it and he told my buddy he needed to go out to the hospital ship because he was right on the edge of blood poisoning. So my friend went out to the ship to get treated, and the next morning our sergeant asked where had my friend gone. I told him he had gone out to the hospital ship. Well the sergeant took that to mean he had died, and filed a report saying he had been killed in action.
Meanwhile, my friend was getting treated on the ship but wanted to come back and help us out, because he knew how bad we were getting it. So he told the doctor he wanted to leave, and even though the doctor didn’t want him to go, he let him. Before he left the ship he wrote a letter to his family letting them know he had been wounded but that he was okay. His family, who had been told he was dead, got a letter from him written from the hospital ship, dated after he had supposedly died. Now, his father called the Red Cross and asked them to sort it out, and it took them over a month to figure out what had happened, but then eventually realized that it had all been a mistake.
Well he and I stayed pretty good friends, and after the war he moved to San Antonio, Texas and had a beef ranch. He died at the beginning of this past winter, and a reporter called me up to interview me about his life. I told him this story, and the reporter and my friend’s granddaughter decided to do some research about it. It turns out that the mistake never got fixed in Washington, and so my friend has two death certificates!”
He laughed, remembering his young skinny friend who left the hospital ship to help his friends. He smiled a little self-deprecatingly at me and apologized for taking up my time with his story. I assured him sincerely that I love hearing veterans’ stories and that this was a great story to tell. We said goodbye and I walked out of the room marveling that 63 years ago he was on a pile of rock in the Pacific Ocean seeing and doing things no one should ever have to. He came home to his very small town, raised dairy cattle, sold insurance, and raised a family. He continued to attend Iwo Jima reunions and kept in touch with the men who had seen and done those horrible things too. And in his standard issue VA pajamas, this great-grandfather had more dignity and strength of character than most well-dressed executives. The term “Greatest Generation” doesn’t even come close.