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One Soldier's Story: A Memoir
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He looked so young, just a boy, really, not much more than twenty-one years of age. It wasn't fair that he'd already experienced so much pain and misery in his short lifetime. It wasn't right that his lofty hopes and dreams for the future had been snuffed out by one blast from an enemy explosive device.
But there he was, in the intensive care unit at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., fighting for his life.
My wife, Elizabeth, and I often visit wounded soldiers at Walter Reed, but this occasion was different. It was Christmas day 2004, and I was about to be discharged from the hospital myself. I had recently undergone surgery in New York, and had been transferred to the medical center in Washington to recuperate.
We were in the dining room shortly before two o'clock, visiting with several young soldiers who had been wounded in the Iraq war, when a mother and daughter spied us. They approached us and introduced themselves as distant relatives of my family. The mother then told us about her son, Craig Nelson, the young man in whose room I now stood. My friend Dr. Charles "Chuck" Peck had informed me of Craig's presence in the hospital, and I had hoped to see him before I left, so the encounter seemed almost providential.
Craig had been badly wounded while on patrol in Iraq a week or so before Christmas. He suffered severe damage to his C-1 vertebra and was paralyzed from his neck down. Now lying in an intensive care unit at Walter Reed, he couldn't move a muscle. He was hooked up to all sorts of medical machines, with various tubes running to his body, an electrocardiogram monitoring his heart, a respirator helping him to breathe, and a tracheotomy in his throat.
Nevertheless, the young man's eyes brightened as I stepped up to his bedside. His mother introduced us: "Craig, this is Bob Dole." Craig's sister joined us around the bed. Craig couldn't speak, but he could hear me and seemed to respond with his eyes.
Looking at Craig, I felt a wave of emotion sweep over me, nearly overwhelming me. It was like seeing a mirror image of myself sixty years earlier. He was tall and muscular, about six feet, one and a half inches, and about 185 pounds, almost identical to my World War II height and weight. For a moment I was back there, in a similar hospital bed, encased in plaster, unable to move, paralyzed from the neck down.
I just stood there at Craig's bedside. I could feel my heart thumping loudly in my chest, my emotions rushing to the surface. I knew the tough road Craig had before him -- and his condition was far worse than mine had been.
I reached out my hand -- my left hand -- touched the soldier's arm, and said, "Good luck, Craig. You're in a great hospital. They'll take good care of you." We stayed only about five minutes.
I looked the young man in the eyes one more time, then turned to his mother, put my arm around her shoulder, and said, "We'll pray for Craig's recovery. Please let me know if I can help."
Unfortunately, a few days later Craig Nelson, another American hero, passed away. I grieved for that family and became more determined that this book would do something to help others understand their pain -- and the trauma that so many others have endured because of war.
I've seen these kids in the hospitals and out, people who face seemingly impossible challenges, and I've seen myself in them. Whatever reassurance, hope, and inspiration I can offer them comes out of my own life experiences.
It's said often that my generation is the greatest generation. That's not a title we claimed for ourselves. Truth be told, we were ordinary Americans fated to confront extraordinary tests. Every generation of young men and women who dare to face the realities of war -- fighting for freedom, defending our country, with a willingness to lay their lives on the line -- is the greatest generation.
In the end, what gets people through a physical or emotional crisis is not new technology or medication. Those things can help, of course. But it's faith that gives you the strength to endure -- faith that won't allow you to give up; faith that manifests itself in a ferocious determination to take the next step -- the one that everyone else says is impossible.
Adversity can be a harsh teacher. But its lessons often define our lives. As much as we may wish that we could go back and relive them, do things differently, make better, wiser decisions, we can't change history. War is like that. You can rewrite it, attempt to infuse it with your own personal opinions, twist or spin it to make it more palatable, but eventually the truth will come out. Those pivotal moments remain indelibly impressed in your heart and mind. For me, the defining period in my life was not running for the highest office in the land. It started years earlier, in a foreign country, where hardly anyone knew my name.
Dear Mom and Dad,
What a life! I can hardly believe that I'm living in such a wonderful place. My rest is about over, but I've really enjoyed myself so far. I'm going on a tour this afternoon, also one tomorrow morning. I should see about everything when I'm finished.
The radio is playing. It reminds me of the times that I've been home playing Norma Jean's records. So far I haven't heard any records by Frank Sinatra. I guess he isn't too popular over here.
The war news really sounds good. I guess Russia plans on helping us with Japan. Keep your eyes on the news for big things to happen.
Had a fine breakfast this morning, scrambled eggs, bacon, tomato juice, toast and coffee. I sure miss my quart of milk per day. Tell Aunt Mildred to be sure to save some for Kenny and me when we get home.
I ran into a Lt. in Eugene's camp only yesterday but still haven't seen Eugene.
So bye for now