Veteran’s Day Memories: Long-Term Consequences
I spent part of today visiting with an elderly relative who fought in the Korean War. That time in his life was clearly on his mind, as, when I stopped in to see him, he had been looking over some old photos from that era, including some of him in uniform.
He recounted some of his experiences to me. One near-death experience came about as a result of him being assigned to be the driver for an officer, “the worst job in the world” according to him. He said that although he had been driving all sorts of vehicles all over the place ever since he’d been in the Army, including tanks, he was now required to take a driving test to qualify for this new job. “That Army was crazy!” he said.
It was winter, and the temperature was ten below zero. But the test had to be done. The Jeep with plastic sides was frozen over and he could barely see out the windshield. The sergeant assigned to test his driving ability ordered him to drive toward a particular area, which necessitated that he cross over a small airstrip in the bottom of the narrow valley. He paused before the airstrip and looked out the windshield as best he could (the plastic door being frozen over), then proceeded. The sergeant began yelling at him that he had not looked carefully enough, so he slammed on the brakes and forced open the frozen-over door – just in time to make solid eye-contact with the pilot of a small plane bearing down on them. The pilot was doing his damnedest to pull that plane up in the sky and it just barely cleared the jeep. My relative said, “if we’d been in a truck, it would have taken the top off of it!” He said he would never forget seeing that pilot’s face. The sergeant was so frightened that finally all he could say was “turn this thing around and let’s go back!” My relative finally got up the nerve to ask, somewhat hopefully, “does this mean I’ve failed the test?” But no! The sergeant passed him, in a sort of “we will never speak of this again” manner.
I have not recounted this story as well as my relative told it to me, but tried to capture the spirit of it. When he was telling it to me, I could feel the cold of that day, and the surprise and terror he felt upon forcing open that Jeep door and finding a plane bearing down on him.
This was not my relative’s only bad experience with planes during the Korean war. He was on several very bad transport flights in bad weather, including one where he was so grateful to have finally landed, only to have the pilot say “brace yourselves, boys. We have to go back up.” Seems they had detoured on their way to Seoul in order to pick up a newspaper for a general. Oh, my relative said, how I wanted to strangle that general!
His journey back to the States was by sea, but from seaport to nearer home he had to travel again on a small plane over the Rockies, again in bad weather. His bad experiences with planes in wartime left him with a lifelong fear of flying that he has never been able to overcome – he has never been on a plane since.
This is sad for many reasons, but right now it makes me very, very sad, because he needs to have a complicated surgical procedure done, and he needs to have it done at a hospital near where his sister lives, so she can care for him afterward. His sister lives a good eight to ten hour drive from where he does. She is not well enough to drive and get him. He is too afraid to get on a plane and fly to her. The reason he needs the procedure is the same reason that makes a drive of this duration extremely difficult, dangerous, and perhaps near impossible for him to undertake. I asked him if he thought he could fly there if he took sedatives and/or anti-anxiety medication and had someone accompany him and he said no – there are no direct flights, and the prospect of two flights was just too much to contemplate. I do not think my own health would allow me to do a drive of this duration or I’d drive him there myself. And of course, this being rural America, there are no bus or rail lines that he could choose to use.
I don’t think the VA can be much help in this because his medical issue is the result of an injury years ago in the coal mines, not related to his military service (I don’t know if they would be able to be of any help in any case). I am still trying to figure out how I might help him get to the medical care he needs.