In this time of national crisis, the staff of the Library of Congress Veterans History Project (VHP) wants our readers and participants to know that our thoughts are with you. We recognize, now more than ever, there is a collective need to look at and remember individual experiences, so that we never forget what sacrifice looks like, how many people do it and that we owe them a debt of gratitude.
The front lines. War zone. Heroes. Selfless sacrifice. Until a few decades ago, these terms were most commonly used in reference to military service members. Those were the faces that would flash across our screens in times of tragedy or crisis. We’ve all seen the images—an unsmiling, uniformed service member seated in front of a crisp American flag, or standing in a desert on the other side of the world, face and boots covered in dust, machine gun at the ready. Plenty of times we’ve been privy to a few solemn seconds of video of a flag-draped casket being carried to its final resting place as a single bugle plays “Taps.” We’d never admit to it out loud, and it feels awful to type, but after so many years, we sometimes become numb to the images. These days, if the decedent wasn’t directly connected to our own family or hometown, then that loss may not even fully register with us the way it would have in years past. I believe that while on the surface it may seem like an insensitive nature, it is simply a subconscious act of self-preservation to protect us from what could be a never-ending state of grief.
As natural disasters and terrorist attacks on United States soil increased, those aforementioned terms began to be used more frequently in conversations pertaining to professional first responders like law enforcement, firefighters and medical personnel. Those are the people who take on the most risky work of protecting, rescuing and saving lives. Our lives. We seem to feel more connected to them. We see them all the time in our own families, neighborhoods, houses of worship, restaurants, barber shops and beauty salons, and know who they are. Their uniforms give them away. They are the people who made a choice to put themselves in harm’s way to help us during our most vulnerable moments. They are trained and compensated for taking that risk, albeit many would argue they deserve higher salaries for doing so.
Many of the people filling these kinds of roles happen to be military veterans, perhaps because they miss the camaraderie and sense of shared mission that comes from serving. Certainly, the training, personal experience, discipline and mental fortitude they developed while serving make transitioning into civilian careers as first responders all the more likely. For example, an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data shows that 19 percent of police officers in the United States are military veterans. When looking specifically at post-9/11 veterans, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics show that 13.8 percent of female and 13.9 percent of male veterans who are employed work in service occupations including firefighter, police and medical assistance.
The VHP archive holds several stories of service from those who were first responders while in uniform; most were trained and had plenty of time to prepare, but some found themselves thrust into their new realities due to the circumstances. World War II Army veteran William McConahey was one of the latter.
He was nearly 87 years old and had already retired from serving as an internist at the Mayo Clinic when he sat down to record his oral history interview in 2003. McConahey was still in medical school when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. Although he received a draft notice, he was allowed to complete his education before joining the war effort. Anxious to do his part, as soon as he graduated and completed a one-year internship, McConahey joined the Army. The Army did its best to turn civilian physicians into soldiers as quickly as possible back then. It taught them the basics—how to wear a uniform, how and when to salute, how to march, how to read a compass and other key points to help them survive combat. But McConahey said the one thing he needed to learn most was virtually impossible to teach: how to be a battalion surgeon in the middle of a bloody war.
You gotta go through that, and find what’s it like, make your mistakes, don’t make ’em again if you survive. You learn by doing there.
He was soon assigned to a unit and shipped off to Europe without even being told to which country he was headed. The next time McConahey’s boots hit soil, he was in France, on Utah Beach, two days after D-Day. He was suddenly face-to-face with unimaginable carnage. His description of the types of wounds he saw gave me chills. His job was to focus on the living. There was no time to mourn the dead. There were so many soldiers in shock due to blood loss that McConahey and his team had to rehydrate powdered blood plasma with sterilized water to do make-shift transfusions on-the-spot. Wounds were often full of dirt, debris and bits of uniform. He cleaned them out the best he could before dressing them. There were no antibiotics out in the field—just sulphur, lots of morphine and quick thinking. He didn’t carry a weapon either.
They call you a battalion surgeon. I didn’t know surgery; really, I was simply trying to save lives.
As a little boy, I’m sure McConahey had no idea he would grow up and become a doctor fighting to save lives in the middle of a war. But he still did his job well, using the skills and resources he had, to the best of his ability, hoping he could make a difference. Sound familiar?
This year, during this pandemic, we have the unfortunate requirement to, again, modify our perspective of those who have earned the right to be included in the group of front line workers, those who make daily, selfless sacrifices. Sure, they received training, but not for this. Of course, they get paid, but not nearly enough for the work they have now been called to do—whether by their supervisors or their own consciences. Unlike military service members and professional first responders, this new group of people doesn’t don a full, government-issued uniform and certified safety gear before going to what we now consider to be the front lines. Many of them are wearing a smock and a name tag as they stand at the cash register or stock shelves in the local grocery store or pharmacy. Or they are wearing an apron as they prepare food for delivery or pick-up. Perhaps they are wearing a button-up, collared shirt and slacks as they operate public transit or deliver the items we order online because brick and mortar stores are temporarily shuttered. They, too, are heroes.
If we look closely, just above the brim of their (maybe homemade) masks, we might just recognize something familiar—the look of fear and uncertainty that greets many of us in our own mirrors each day. The difference is, we’re inside the safe confines of our own homes, while they don’t have that privilege. Whoever they are, however they serve, whenever they served, we owe them our thanks.