“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother”
This past week, I watched the 10-part HBO mini-series Band of Brothers, a dramatized version of Stephen Ambrose’s book by the same title. Although the mini-series first aired in 2001, I had never seen it. The series follows the real-life exploits of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division (that’s a mouthful) during World War II.
When the series first aired, it was heralded for its realistic depiction of war. Many of the scenes are gory, violent, and chaotic. None of what is depicted is glorified. And, although many heroic acts are included, none of the characters are treated as heroes.
The series was enthralling. Despite chronicling a war that ended more than fifty years before the show was first broadcast, the series seemed fresh and relevant. It might be even more relevant today, as we see the rise of authoritarianism around the world, and an embrace of Nazism and anti-Semitism right here in the United States.
I enjoyed (if that is the right word) the first eight episodes of the series, but episode nine struck me like a lightning bolt right in the heart. In episode nine, entitled “Why We Fight,” Easy Company is sent to Landsberg, Germany to oversee the surrender of 300,000 German soldiers. While on patrol near Landsberg, Easy Company discovers the Kaufering Concentration Camp. The German guards have abandoned the camp, and the prisoners, weak and emaciated, are locked inside the fencing.
The men of Easy Company don’t know what to make of what they are seeing. Dead corpses litter the camp, and the smell of death and decay fills the air. Skeletal beings, with shaved heads and wearing ragged clothes, wander aimlessly, initially unaware that they are being rescued. When it becomes clear that the Americans are there to save them, the prisoners want to touch their saviors, to hug them and show their gratitude. But for the Americans, who are still coming to grips with what they are seeing, the prisoners look like something out of a horror movie. The soldiers feel a mix of compassion and revulsion, unsure exactly what they should do or how they should act.
The scenes at the concentration camp struck me especially hard because my father was once one of those soldiers. He was in the troops that liberated the Dachau and Buchenwald Concentration Camps. Although he didn’t talk about his experience often, when he did, he described exactly what was being shown in Band of Brothers. It’s still difficult to think that my own father witnessed such atrocities. He was just a 19-year old kid when this happened, and I have to believe that the smell and images stayed with him throughout his life. I’ve always felt a bit of awe toward what my father experienced, but seeing it play out on TV—even a dramatized version—made me respect my dad’s service even more. It also made me mourn what I can only imagine was his lost youth and the lifelong nightmares he suffered because of what he saw.
Dad went on to serve in the Korean Conflict, spending a total of ten-and-a-half years in the Army, much of it in combat or near the front lines. When he came home, he was changed. Who wouldn’t be. He had joined the Army as a gregarious, bright-eyed kid and had returned more introverted, less idealistic, and with a jaundiced eye toward the world. It was no longer the wonderful place he had once thought it was.
The men that survived World War II returned home and carried on with their lives. Some went on to great successes. Others fell on hard times, unable to get over the horrors they had experienced in war. For my dad, it was a mixed bag. Although he didn’t talk about his time in the Army often, the experience stuck with him. He had trouble sleeping, dealt with constant headaches, and for years suffered from stomach ulcers. Doctors could never pinpoint the cause of his ailments, but in hindsight, I think they are obvious. People are not designed to see so much violence and bloodshed. They are not made to endure battle after battle after battle. Everyone has their breaking point. For some, it’s a mental breakdown. For others, like my father, the demons manifest themselves physically, taking their toll on the body.
Dad turned to prescription pain killers for the ulcers and, I imagine, to keep the demons at bay. As a kid, I had hard feelings toward my dad for his addiction. I blamed him every time he didn’t feel up to playing catch or attending one of my baseball or basketball games. Of course, I was blissfully unaware of what he was dealing with, the experiences that kept replaying in his mind, and how he was using the drugs to try to tamp down the memories of all he had seen and done.
I’m sure the nightmarish memories never left my dad. I suspect he was still dealing with them right up until his death in 2019 at the age of 93. But things got better. The demons must have eased up because in the mid to late 1980s, Dad’s health took a turn for the better. The stomach issues, although they never went away completely, improved, and Dad started to enjoy life again. It didn’t happen overnight, but he gave up the painkillers and became more outgoing, more friendly. He laughed more often and seemed to leave the past in the past, more grateful than ever for his many blessings. The farther he got from the war, things only got better.
Thank God there are men and women willing to fight and die for our liberty and way of life. What we ask from them is too much. Even when they survive the wars we send them to, they often return home fighting internal battles that most of us can’t see and don’t understand. I only hope that each and every military veteran finds the peace that eluded my dad for so long. They deserve at least that much for all they have given to our country.
To all of our military veterans, thank you for your service.
Veteran’s Day 2023