Heroism and Humanity

June 6th, today, we commemorate D-Day, the beginning of the operation that turned the tide of World War Two in the Allies’ favor. Captain Albert Wheatland Brown was there struggling through the chest-high water from a landing craft to Omaha Beach in the first wave of the assault. He was not there to kill the enemy but to put the bodies of the wounded back together.

Captain Brown was a front-line surgeon with the 3rd Auxiliary Surgical Group. He had already witnessed the savagery of combat from Oran to Tunis in North Africa. His unit served in the invasion of Sicily. After the battles on the beaches of Normandy, he continued with the army through France and Germany. The 3rd “Auxers,” both doctors and nurses, treated the victims of Buchenwald and saved American prisoners of war abandoned by the retreating Germans — all the way to Berlin. At this point, the forty-two year old doctor received the Bronze Star for his heroism.

Captain Brown saw the real cost of war. He saw the devastation that weapons cause to the human body. How many lives did he save? How much suffering did he alleviate? How many could he only watch die? Whatever beliefs, education, rank, or history these soldiers had didn’t matter to him. He was there to heal them. He was called “the doctor who never sleeps.”

We citizens of the United States have a peculiar relationship with war. We say that we are a peace loving nation, but the words of our national anthem venerate bombs and destruction. Fighter jets fly over our holiday celebrations and sporting events. We applaud tanks and armaments in our parades.

Yes, of course, we must honor those who gave their lives for our country. We must also remember for which cause they gave those lives. Our country has been fighting a war of some kind for two hundred and twenty-two years of its two hundred and thirty-nine years of existence. At certain times in our history, war was the only answer. But the list of our unjust, unnecessary, and illegal wars is long.

And I totally understand the phrase, “Thank you for your service.” It’s a big change from the vilification that the soldiers returning from Vietnam received. But it has to mean more. Service to what? Service to a country that celebrates war for war’s sake? Service to war profiteers? Service to the murder of local civilian populations?

The Bronze Star sits prominently on a shelf in our living room. Right next to it is his son’s Purple Heart. Al Brown, Jr., my husband, knew he didn’t have the smarts to become a doctor, so he joined the Marine Corps in order to somehow live up to his father’s courage. It was a very different war.

Al talked on the phone a few years ago with a ninety-four year old doctor who had served with his dad in the 3rd Auxiliary Surgical Group. “The surf at the Omaha Beach shoreline was too deep for me,” he said. He was going under, as many of the soldiers did when they jumped off of the landing craft. He told Al how Captain Brown made him hang on his shoulder strap as they floundered toward the beach. Al’s dad was 6’4”. Dr. Torrado was 5’6”. A small act of generosity, a huge act of heroism.

Captain Brown became Major Brown. Then, when the war was over, he became simply Dr. Brown. Instead of saving the dying, he brought babies into the world as head of obstetrics at an urban hospital. Ironically, he died from an infection after a minor operation at this same hospital. He was only forty-seven.

President Obama spoke these words at Hiroshima over Memorial Day weekend: “We must change our mind-set about war itself. To prevent conflict through diplomacy and strive to end conflicts after they’ve begun. To see our growing interdependence as a cause for peaceful cooperation and not violent competition. To define our nations not by our capacity to destroy but by what we build. And perhaps, above all, we must re-imagine our connection to one another as members of one human race.”

Let’s listen to these words. Let’s be vigilant about ending our county’s addiction to war. Let’s bring acts of heroism into our daily lives. Let’s vote for people who aren’t trigger happy, who will keep our country safe by keeping us at peace. Let us, somehow, live up to the courage of Dr. Albert Wheatland Brown by giving our all to heal the wounds of our world.