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Tony Gentry

My Father's War Injuries - A New Discovery

In the past year, I spent a lot of time thinking about my dad. Not the man I knew and shadowed most of my childhood, working side-by-side with him in the butcher shop of a local supermarket, then at his own grocery store, then on a farm, then building power lines, and on Sunday’s after church walking the railroad track to a fishing hole in the woods. I knew this man well and loved him for his gentleness, his gentlemanliness, his humility and his quiet pride. And I knew him as a troubled veteran, prone to nightmares, drinking bouts that lost him jobs, haunted walks along backroads at night, and at times, having a smoke on the porch, a distant stare.


So I tried to trace the origin of his troubles, researching and writing a book about his three years in the Army, serving in Africa and Europe, during World War II. I wrote the book for myself, of course, and for our sons, a tale of their grandfather, an unsung representative of what we call the Greatest Generation. The book, WWII Mortarman, traces the path of his wartime mortar battalion, stitching into that tapestry threads of the very few anecdotes he’d allowed in his lifelong silence about it all.


The book ends with his return home from the war. It only hints at the aftermath, the life of the man shaped by combat. The father I knew. My first job as an occupational therapist was at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Manhattan, treating veterans from all our 20th Century wars (even one old WWI vet, who’d outlived all his children). Sometimes, sitting with warm paraffin encasing their arthritic hands, one or two of them would say something about their war. It seemed to help them, sharing a story with another guy who’d been there. I kept my ears perked, of course, having longed to hear my own father tell some of it.


I learned about post-traumatic stress disorder, about flashbacks, and nightmares and insomnia and guilt and the 100-yard stare. I saw how all those symptoms lived on in my father long decades after his age 20-something battles overseas. And then, just this week, another perspective arrived in a New York Times article: Pattern of Brain Damage is Pervasive in Navy SEALS Who Died by Suicide.


It turns out that firing mortars, hundreds of times, right up against the firing tube, over a period of weeks or months can cause brain damage. Even if that happens only in training, not on the battlefield. In addition to the deafness my dad suffered from, mortarmen are reporting symptoms of concussion that overlap with those I’d always attributed to PTSD: headache, sleeplessness, attention deficit, confusion, anxiety, mood disorders and the self-medication a man turns to when one’s symptoms are misunderstood.


So now, eighty years on from my father’s service overseas, I’m wondering how much of his struggle across his long life was the aftermath of the horror of combat, and how much was the concussive injury caused by firing mortars, sometimes hundreds of shells in a day, month after month?  


The VA was slow to address PTSD, known as shell-shock in Daddy’s time, and still doesn’t seem to have figured out what treatments may help. Grudgingly, now, it may have finally begun to recognize this other kind of injury, similarly disabling, suffered by artillerymen and mortarmen in training. I wish we’d known about it. I wish there had been some explanation and some treatment that might have helped my dad cope. I hope the Army will find a way to protect soldiers from this injury. And I’ll always wonder what else I don’t know about what happened in combat to my father so long ago.


PS:  Here’s a page from a new Army study about the concussive effect of mortar firing. The mortars my father’s battalion used were 81-millimeter M2s, like those shown here:

As you can see from this document, the Army recommends standing no closer than 7 feet away from the mortar barrel when firing. Note the drawing at top right. That guy is way too close, as was typical in my father's day. Now multiply that blast by thousands of mortar shells fired, sometimes hundreds in a single day.



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