Seasonal Reflection: Veterans Day

William DeBiase, OFM Features


William DeBiase in Korea in 1952.

As Veterans Day approached, a friar who served with the infantry during the Korean conflict reflected on his tour of duty. “I wrote the following article, titled ‘The Last Hill,’ primarily for the young men and women who are serving in the Middle East,” he said. “I hope that this will assure them that although war is horrible, they can live happy and productive lives.”

For those who have tasted the horrors of war, the bloodshed, the waste of life, the memories always remain. As the years go by, they become dimmer. They are tucked away in a remote part of the psyche. They are wrapped in a protective shield of silence. They see the light only when jolted. They have to be awakened. Such a jolt happened to me a while back.

It started very innocently — a telephone call asking for information about what it was like in Korea in the early 1950s. The call was going to open up memories long forgotten. The call did away with 50 plus years. The call came from a college student writing a history paper on a part of history that not many people know of, and a professor challenging students to look into what has rather unhappily become known as “The Forgotten War.” There was a need for some firsthand information. The call, the student, the professor and the need all seemed to converge on me.

It took time to answer. Digging away all those years and finding in the shoveled space the feelings and experiences from so long ago was a task both happy and fearful. Happy, because sharing a part of one’s life is always a fulfilling experience. Fearful, because I was not sure what unwanted memories would bob their heads up from the sea after so many years. “Memories safely tucked away should not be let into the light,” I told myself. “They have been dealt with, let them rest. This would be wise.”

What was it like in Korea? As I considered the question, I remembered the fear. It was constant, accompanied by the sounds of war. Exploding shells, shouting voices and cries of pain filled my room. Then I realized the fear had never really been forgotten. It was just waiting to be called into the daylight. My hands did not sweat as they did those many years ago. The pressure behind my eyes was not there, nor was there unthinking movement, but the fear was real, the sounds were real.

The sounds stopped as my thoughts changed. It was no longer the fear that captured my memory. It was the cold. Fear could become a friend. Fear could transcend the moment and travel to somewhere higher. Cold was never a friend. It wasn’t that the thermometer was low; it was that the cold was always with you. Fear had its moments of highs and lows, but the cold did not change.

There was no escape from the cold, everywhere was cold; the occasional bit of heat was neutralized by the wind blowing through the tents and the bunkers. As many new things about fear were learned, so cold revealed its nature.

The desire to find relief from cold’s biting stabbing fingers could become obsessive. It dehumanized the body, numbing the spirit so that you became so cold that the spirit would no longer acknowledge its presence, a protection that God built into who we are. Our skin hardened and peeled without feeling, hands and feet blued, lips chapped and bled, and there was always the dream, the hope that soon there would be warmth.

I remember looking out over the valley and seeing fires in enemy lines. They were cold also. Just for a moment, a touch of bonding took place. The enemy was human. Looking at those fires, I came to realize that they were cold, they were afraid. The impersonalization, which was so necessary, disappeared. I could see them huddled around that fire, trying to get the last bit of warmth. I could imagine them talking about the same things we talked about, about getting home. They felt the same wind, the same cold. The cold was a common factor among enemies.

This fear and the cold lived inside bodies without sleep. Sleep — a simple thing that, over the years, has been taken for granted — became a prized possession. Sleep would be sought at any time, any place. It was more important than food. Sometimes there were days without sleep. The eyes became dazed, the brain numbed. There was no thinking — basic motor reactions were all one could hope for. We tried to find that last scrap of energy that would make the next step possible, realizing that sleepwalking was becoming more and more a reality in our lives. What the fear and cold had not eaten, the days without sleep would finish.

Another paradox emerged. On the one hand, life was brought to the very basics. It was stripped of comforts and even the necessities. A common denominator had been found. Warmth, sleep, freedom from fear — these were the important things. Having reduced life to these bare minimums, one also came to realize the great dignity of life. The accruements of culture seemed to trivialize life. It got hidden under a lot of things. Reducing life only elevated it.

The fear, the cold and the sleeplessness all took place on hills. I wondered, as I sat in my room bringing up these old images, what they looked like now. Are they green? Are there trees? I wondered whether these long ago places of death had turned into places of life.

Were the marks of war now covered with the signs of a hoped for peace? It was on these hills that our constant companions — fear, cold, sleeplessness — were always with us. It was in the dust, the mud and the snow of the hill that they were lived with.

My answer to the student’s question was complete. The fax machine sent the pages quickly. All those years were lived in such a short time. All those miles were spanned in a blinked eye.

Fr. William, a member of the HNP Ministry of the Word, serves at St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia. He frequently posts reflections on his blog, Franciscan

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