By Paul F. Bradley
While I think of my grandfather, Henry LeCompte, often, I always think of him on Dec. 16. The date marks the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge, which commenced 70 years ago this week. His experiences in the battle profoundly affected his life.
The Bulge was the last major German offensive on the Western front, designed to divide the British and American allies and forestall, perhaps even avoid, defeat. The attack erupted in the heavy woods of the Ardennes region and would become the largest and bloodiest battle for the United States in World War II.
The appropriate military term to describe the breach of the allied lines was salient, but the "Battle of the Ardennes Salient" does not command a headline like "Battle of the Bulge," and it was christened accordingly for American consumption. The name hints at the scope and cost of the conflict. Its later use to characterize weight management seems almost disrespectful.
My grandfather witnessed how human life becomes an expendable commodity in wartime. Friends and comrades were maimed and killed. Tanks and troop trucks drove to the front at breakneck speed to plug gaps in the lines. Ammunition was replenished. Lives, unfortunately, do not have that replaceable quality.
A lifelong aversion to sauerkraut saved my grandfather's life. His friend, who had sought shelter in a sabotaged cabbage factory, was not so fortunate.
During the war, Henry LeCompte did his duty and even met Gen. George S. Patton when he set up communications at his command post. My grandfather also wrote to my grandmother. And he survived.
After the war and his discharge, he took off his uniform for good and moved on with his life. He and my grandmother raised eight wonderful children.
However, he never shed the terrible memories from his service. He self-medicated through hours of quiet contemplation with slow-burning cigarettes and Ortlieb's.
Today, he would likely be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, called combat stress or survivor's guilt in his generation's parlance. He never sought professional treatment; the education and the support system also did not exist. Occasionally, he would share a brief anecdote, but before long, he would retreat, as reminiscing was clearly too painful.
For my grandfather and for many GIs leading up to the battle, Bing Crosby's 1944 rendition of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" was a tune whose lyrics perfectly captured their hopes. They believed that they would indeed be home for Christmas. The Bulge ended that fleeting dream.
I wonder if door-busting shoppers reflect on the song's poignant quality when it plays as they wait for stores to open or while they complain about standing in long checkout lines. My guess is probably not.
While the song reminds me of my grandfather's time in Europe, I also think of our service men and women serving abroad now. They would probably like nothing more than to be able to stand in line at Target or Old Navy. Their duties, sadly, keep them away from home.
This Christmas, remember them and those who served before them. Also, consider those who have returned stateside but may still have tethers to their time in the service.