The Fading Light of a Time of Heroes
The medical student pulled up a chair and began to discuss her patient
with me. She rattled off his stats: 94-years-old, surprisingly healthy, looks
80…couple bumps and bruises, better-safe-than-sorry kind of stuff. I stopped
“Did you ask him about the war?”
She looked confused, as if trying to recall if this was somehow germane
to the patient’s chief complaint as to why he was in the emergency room at the
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Twenty-four,” she replied.
“You have maybe two years left before you will never be able to ask
that question again. This is the greatest generation that ever lived. They died
on battlefields all over the world and saved the millions from fascism. They
all want to tell their stories before they die. So let’s check him out
and then ask him about the war.”
And for the next 15 minutes, we sat in wonder and rapt attention as he
told us with great pride that he had been a bomber pilot, fighting over Italy,
the Balkans and later Berlin, where he was shot down. He parachuted to
safety and was taken prisoner, put in a Stalag POW camp, later liberated by
Gen. George Patton, as he described him riding into camp on a tank, shiny
helmet with a pistol strapped on his side. The student sat silent but glowed in
wonderment at what she was experiencing. As we left the room, she turned to
“Dr. Profeta, that was amazing. Thank you so much.”
I smiled in agreement.
“He’s fine, let him go home,” and as I typed up his discharge paperwork,
my fingers stopped for a bit and hovered above the keys as my mind flashed back
to another time I asked that question.
“So were you in the war?” I asked the 90-year-old man who looked 75.
“Of course I was, we all were,” he replied. His well-pressed daughter
sat in the corner smiling with pride behind her bronze-rimmed glasses. “I was
with Patton in Europe in the Battle of the Bulge. I was a gunner in a half-track; we provided support
for the tanks. I manned this fifty-caliber gun in the turret. You see the Nazi
planes would start strafing us and, I’d be there in my turret, BANG BANG BANG
BANG! I had this foot operated ‘gun thing’ too you would step on and WHOOF
WHOOF it would shoot these big shells out the side.”
I listened attentively as he talked about the fighting and how his
brother was killed in Europe and how he wished it had been him since his
brother had two small children. He held up his weathered hand to show me how
tall the kids had been when he was killed. I hung on to the bed rail in
silence. He told me about his nephews who were also killed, how his cousin was
injured in the navy and how he had married the nurse that cared for him. He was
animated in his demeanor, as he discussed every detail. The words flowed in a
continuous stream of reflection like I have never heard. He held his head high
and beamed with a mixture of pride and gratitude that some young punk like me
would ask about his war service.
Then somehow the talk turned to the holocaust.
“Dad, you helped liberate a camp didn’t you?” His daughter leaned
forward in her chair. I thought I saw a faint quiver in his lip.
“Yes, yes, we pulled into Austria and liberated Mauthhausen.” His
speech became fractured not like earlier, “There were these ovens and these
burnt bodies…I saw this guy in striped pants, there was this pit, and a
bulldozer, it had a huge blade, and well they went all the way to the top and
out the sides, and the ovens, and I saw…and the…they…and they were all nude and
you could not tell if they were women or men…and…and” his faced turned sallow,
and tears filled the wrinkles below his eyes and hovered for a second before
falling. The words stuck thick in his mouth. His daughter sat staring at me in
silent disbelief, and mouthed the words: “I had no idea; I have never heard any
of this before. He never, ever told me this.”
I put my arm around him and held him tight. “It’s OK, I’m sorry I made
you go there.”
“No, no,” he patted my arm with a hand that once fired a fifty-caliber
machine gun. “I’ll tell you this, though, I am not spending the night in this
hospital. I feel great; I walk three blocks every day. Oh did I tell you about
my cousin who got injured in the navy? He married the nurse that took care of
“No you didn’t.” I smiled at the daughter. “Tell me about it.”
the Author: Dr. Louis Profeta is an
emergency physician at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is the recipient of numerous honors and
awards for his contributions to community health. He was recently recognized as the top Medical
Voice for LinkedIn.