OPINION: November is for remembrance and thanks

By Lorraine Connelly

I must remind myself that the end of year, at least according to the Catholic liturgical calendar, is November, not December, which marks the Advent season and the beginning of the New Year. The Church holds the month of November in dedication and remembrance of those who have departed, with All Souls Day on November 2. Then two secular holidays quickly follow: Veterans Day, November 11, where we remember and thank those who served in the military, and the American Thanksgiving Holiday, where we give thanks and praise for the bounty in our lives.

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a Wallingford Rotary Luncheon where I sat next to Vietnam War Combat Medic Bob Lombardo. I murmured a “Thank you for your service,” which has always seemed to me an inadequate response to greeting a veteran. I wanted to do something more, so I asked him to share his story. And what a story it is!

Bob served an 11-month tour of duty, from September 1968 to August 1969, in an area called Duc Pho which was a few hundred miles south of Da Nang along the coast of Vietnam. The year before, Bob had dropped out of college and was subsequently drafted at age 20.

With only eight weeks of medical training, he was assigned to the 11th Infantry Brigade, best known for its service with the 23rd Infantry Division, at the height of the Tet Offensive. He was part of The Delta Dogs team. Says Bob, “The field training at the time was not extensive and probably should have included things such as how to treat malaria and other types of infectious disease pathologies.” The Combat Medic Specialist Training Program (CMSTP), now a 16-week program, is still the largest medical training program in the U.S. Army, training up to 6,000 students per year.

Bob relates one incident right before Christmas when his company ran into a firefight. Moving downhill, Bob moved behind one tree for safety, and then another. A fellow soldier followed his path and was struck by a bullet that went through the tree that Bob had just left. The soldier was severely wounded. Bob was able to move him to safety so that he could be evacuated. “That split-second decision on my part to move away from one tree to another protected me.” Bob earned his first Purple Heart in that incident and continued to earn four more. He also earned two bronze stars for heroic action on behalf of others.

The active battlefield became Bob’s real-life training. He earned his final Purple Heart when he was reassigned to a base camp aide station. As the base took fire from a vicious rocket attack, Bob managed to head to a bunker dragging one of his wounded fellow medics to safety. Bob immediately started working on his friend ignoring his own increasing back pain, which he thought was a back strain from dragging the wounded soldier to safety. He finally realized that he had a shrapnel wound to his back. Notes Bob, “during a firefight, the main thing is survival, and for a medic, it’s taking care of the wounded and the dead. I was just doing my job and didn’t even know I was hit. The rush of adrenaline just took over.”

Bob speaks a lot about “the butterfly effect,” and its impact both in his military and civilian careers. The butterfly effect is the phenomenon whereby “a minute localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere.” After earning a degree from Quinnipiac University in radiological sciences, he married, raised a family, and had a fulfilling career working at Yale medical center in trauma radiology, then in commercial sales and completing his career at Fuji Film’s medical division as a technical imaging specialist. Upon retirement, a chance encounter with a former associate at the North Haven recycling center led to his current position as adjunct professor of Diagnostic Imaging in radiography at Quinnipiac. He joined the Student/Faculty Veterans organization and was asked by Director Jason Burke to speak at its annual dinner a few years ago, Says Bob, “it was very tough and emotional getting my story out, but since that time, it has been easier when I have to speak.” Bob’s been telling his story ever since at veterans’ coffeehouses, senior centers, and in a documentary film available on YouTube, “The Delta Dogs Tet offensive.”

As novelist Tim O’Brien, who also served in the 23rd Infantry Division, writes in his classic “The Things They Carried,” “Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”

If there is a veteran at your Thanksgiving table this year, honor him or her by asking them about their stories. You’ll be glad you did.

Lorraine Connelly is a writer and Wallingford resident.

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