"He left the States 31 months ago. He was wounded in his first campaign. He has had tropical diseases. He half-sleeps at night and gouges Japs out of holes all day. Two-thirds of his company has been killed or wounded. He will return to attack this morning. How much can a human being endure?"-Tom Lea, 1945 correspondent and artist of "Marines Call It That 2,000 Yard Stare", referring to the soldier who he painted.
You never forget your commanding officer.
It's strange in a way, I suppose, because the mind dims with age, names and battles fade away, and most of us try to put the war behind us. But he stays in your memory, the man who held the power over life and death, the one you followed into purgatory. Mine was a captain. Captain Benedict. He was young, then, younger than Lt. Kimbro, Sgt. McKenna, or half of the men beneath him, and like me, he'd never seen a day of combat before we landed at Salerno. He was scared stiff at first, we all could see it in his eyes, but he made it through San Pietro, and after that there wasn't a man in the squad who wouldn't follow him across Italy.
In all honesty, I never truly liked Captain Benedict. Admired and respected him, yes. But he was a difficult man to know, and sometimes there was a hardness in him that turned my blood cold, like the time he didn't help that tailor who the tanks gunned down, or the German soldier holding the grenade on the Italian girl. D'Angelo never got over watching that girl blown up when the Captain shot the German, and for weeks afterwards he'd start screaming in his sleep.
D'Angelo was the hardest, I think. He was wild and always gambling but we all liked him, and when he took a grenade saving Lt. Kimbro we were set to storm Berlin itself to get him back if we had to. But the Captain wouldn't even let us try, saying that it was better to lose one man than all of us. I think the lieutenant and I hated him then, because he wrote D'Angelo off too easily, like it didn't matter at all.
We went him after him against orders, and I think we'd known we could have been court-martialed for it. We found D'Angelo lying on a pile of filthy straw in a cell, and brought him back, but the infection was already deep in the shrapnel wounds and after a few days the doctor wanted to amputate the arm and leg to save his life. I remember looking up at Captain Benedict, and my stomach twisted, lurching against my throat. There was no anger or bitterness on his face, no rage or even the faintest whisper of worry. His face was blank, like a dead man walking, a horrible, empty stare as if he'd looked into the face of death itself. That look didn't go away until D'Angelo started responding to the penicillin, and the doctor changed his mind, but by then, I'd already realized what it meant, because I'd felt it myself, that once, when I watched men die.
Every soldier finds a way to deal with the war. Some get angry, killing the enemy as if they have a personal vendetta against them, hating to keep themselves going. Others keep their eyes on home and going back, surviving because they know it will mean seeing their families again. And some don't cope at all, going deep inside themselves and breaking away from the world, and losing themselves in the effort. And that's what happened to the Captain. But I couldn't say anything because Captain Benedict was my commanding officer, the leader, and a leader has to stay strong to keep his men from falling apart. I couldn't ruin that, not when it was keeping us alive.
D'Angelo was wounded again right at the end of the war, the last battle our squad fought in, only this time I expected the look before I saw it, even if I didn't know it was the last time I'd see it in the war. It was a bad wound, even I knew that, and he was bleeding out despite our hands clamping the artery. I remember calling to the Captain, my voice strange to my own ears, high-pitched and ringing, and his eyes snapped in a hard blink, coming to a focus on us. For one terrible moment I thought he wasn't going to order us back, that he'd make us hold a worthless stretch of land and a shelled-out farmhouse, and let D'Angelo bleed his life away into the dirt. But he gave the order and even clamped down on the wound while we carried him between us, running as fast as we dared in the direction of the field hospital.
D'Angelo was always the sensitive one of all of us. No one would think it to look at him, not with the roughness about him or the calm way he'd throw a grenade without even blinking. But he was soft inside, gentle in a way few of us still were, as if the war hadn't been able to carve his heart out. Call it a weakness, or even a flaw, but he's still the strongest person I've known, despite his caring, and while everyone's eyes said that he wouldn't live, I knew differently. If anyone could survive an ounce of lead against their heart and an unimaginable loss of blood, it was him. So while Conley prayed, and the wounded kept coming in, I held onto the faith I had in him. I owed D'Angelo that much, after that time in the snow when we were separated from the rest of the squad and I would have died of exhaustion and exposure if he hadn't gotten me back by himself.
He fought hard for life through fever, but even when no more orders came for us he didn't start to recover. There was no look on the Captain's face this time and through it all Captain Benedict never cracked once.
The war ended just a little while after that. Conley stayed at the hospital, and I went back as all the rest who could travel did, home to my parents and the home I'd grown up in. Conley called me when D'Angelo took a turn for the better, and again when the doctor finally said he'd live. He'd called the Captain, too, but he'd already known. Conley thought he must have been calling every day to check.
The rest of us kept in touch but I didn't see the Captain again until our reunion. He stayed on the outskirts for the most part, and said only a handful of words to anyone. D'Angelo was there, of course, with the nurse he'd married as soon as he was on his feet, and their baby girl, and the Captain held her when he gave her to him, eyes clouding in a fainter copy of that look I remembered from before. He left early, and none of us heard from him after that, but I'd assumed he'd moved on as we'd all tried to do, even as I knew, deep down inside, that there was no moving on for Captain Benedict.
So, I guess it was sadness I felt, more than shock or anything else, when I got the phone call from D'Angelo, passing on what he'd heard from Lucavich. Most of us had married and had kids by now, and all of us had a steady job. The Captain had drifted from job to job and didn't so much as have a girlfriend. He lived in a small apartment, spending most of his time off work alone and indoors. He'd slit his wrists over the bathtub, and somehow the landlady, checking on him, chose that moment to come. He'd live, but he was in the hospital, on suicide watch.
Pete met me outside the hospital. He's already seen him, and called most of the others, but he can't stay because his wife is back home and another baby is on the way, any day now. He always wanted a large family, like he grew up with, and even his sadness over the Captain can't dim the happiness in his eyes or the softness in his voice when he talks about his wife, their daughter, or the unborn child.
It's ironic somehow that D'Angelo, the one with the bleeding heart, picked up the pieces and moved on better than the rest of us, and the Captain, hard and by the book, is still somewhere in the war. No one knows if he'll get better, if he'll ever leave the war and come home in his mind. My footsteps echo in the halls as I walk toward his room, and I swallow the sick taste in my throat before I enter.
The Captain looks older, far more than six years should allow, with gray threads at his temples, and a worn look on his face. I sit down across from his bed in a hard-backed chair, the soles of my feet scuffing with a painfully loud sound in the quiet. His hands rest on his stomach, wrists bandaged, and he's thin and frail-looking, as if six years have drained the heart right out of him.
His eyes shift to me, and for only a moment they clear, and I swear he looks straight at me. "Gibson." His voice is quiet, faint. "Can you hear them screaming? All those voices crying out and the English and German all tangled together?"
"No, sir." My chest tightens, and, help me, aches for him, for strong Captain Benedict and all the casualties of the war who came home in coffins of their mind instead of a wooden box. We're out of the army and he's no longer in charge, but I don't feel permitted to provide words of comfort, only the quietly respectful responses I once gave.
"Pete D'Angelo." Captain Benedict says, suddenly, the middle of a sentence without the beginning. His eyes stare down at the twitching hands as if not recognizing them as his own. "Did I let him die?"
"No, sir." I swallow the lump in my throat, forcing the words to remain steady, as I see the light of explosions against the darkened sky, feel the slickness of D'Angelo's blood between my fingers, and see the Captain's face above me, stiff and seemingly uncaring as the anger surges in me, the hatred for an officer who I'd thought would let another man die. "You ordered us back and we got him to the field hospital on time."
He squints, staring into the wall behind me as if looking through it, eyes searching all of Italy. "And the tailor..?"
"He was killed, sir. By a Panzer." My voice wavers despite my efforts, but the Captain's eyes don't flicker.
"I can't remember the tailor's name." His voice is hollow, almost detached. "I should...I shouldn't forget the name of a man I let... Do you know what it was?" My fingers dig into the chair, my palm hard against the wood.
"No, sir." My words are quiet but heavy, weighed with sadness and the realization that I can't recall it either, sadness for a war and a man still fighting it, and all of us crawling inch through painful inch across a country we'd never even seen. I want to help him but I don't know how, because how can you make someone forget how they held the power over life and death in their hands? He did all he could, what he thought was best, and it wasn't enough for all of us. But he's only human, and men break like glass.
He's still watching me, and the words tumble out even as I try to grasp the name, the image of the face he'll never forget, and fail.
"I don't remember."
Descriptively called the "Thousand-Yard Stare", known as "Battle Fatigue" and treated by little more than rest in WWII, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder would be formally named for the symptoms of soldiers in the Vietnam War. Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker note: "One-tenth of mobilized American men were hospitalized for mental disturbances between 1942 and 1945, and after thirty-five days of uninterrupted combat, 98% of them manifested psychiatric disturbances in varying degrees." As of June, 2012, 19,000 WWII veterans still receive disability benefits for PTSD.