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Movie stirs emotions for veterans

August 02, 1998|By LAURA ERNDE

D-Day veteran James R. Cochran of Boonsboro won't go see the movie "Saving Private Ryan," which depicts the bloody reality of the June 6, 1944 invasion of Normandy, France.

"I would hate to see it over again," said Cochran, who doesn't even like to attend military funerals because he's heard Taps too often in his 75 years.

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Cochran was a sergeant for Hagerstown's Company B, 115th Infantry, 29th Division, part of the second wave of infantry to hit the beach that day.

"When you see your buddies, their stomachs ripped open and laying on the hillsides.... We sat there on the beach of Normandy and cried," he said.

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Another local veteran, Bardin N. Gibbons of Hagerstown, said he walked out of the movie before it was over because it was too gory and too long.

"It sort of got to me," said Gibbons, 80, who belonged to the 729th Combat Ordnance, 29th Division, which arrived at Normandy the day after D-Day.

Dr. Eric Gerdeman, coordinator of a post-traumatic stress disorder program at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg, W.Va., said the movie's realism may be enough to disturb a veteran of any war.

In response, the VA has set up a nationwide toll-free hotline, 1-800-827-1000, for veterans who want to talk with someone about what they saw.

Last weekend, the hotline got about 100 calls, said Doris Griffin, spokeswoman for the Martinsburg VA Center, which didn't receive any calls.

On the other hand, veteran Sam E. Dixon said he enjoyed watching the movie and found it to be dead-on in telling the story of the invasion.

"People getting killed all around you and having to step over them, that's very true," said Dixon, 73, of Williamsport.

The timing of the movie release was perfect for Dixon, who has been thinking and reading a lot about the war in recent months.

Dixon's job on D-Day was carrying mortar shells onto the beaches of Normandy with a weapons platoon with the 1st Infantry.

Dixon said his own captain was a lot like the movie's Capt. John Miller, played by Tom Hanks.

"I can appreciate what that captain did. With that kind of leadership, that's why we won the war," he said.

Unlike some veterans, Dixon never had any nightmares about the atrocities he witnessed or suffered from survivor's guilt.

"I've just been grateful how lucky I was," said Dixon, who was wounded twice.

The movie also gave Evelyn Dixon a chance to see what her husband experienced.

"It's still hard for me to believe he did that. It just really kind of shook me to the core to think that he managed to get out of there alive," she said.

But just talking about the war summoned difficult memories for Cochran, like using the body of a small, blond-haired soldier for protection against the raining bullets.

Paul Mackrell, 73, of Hagerstown, also finds it difficult to talk about his war experiences as a lookout on a Navy LST.

D-Day was scary, he said, but his second invasion Aug. 15 was even scarier because he knew what to expect.

"The older you get, the more you realize what a tremendous thing it really was.... How lucky," he said.

Mackrell said he'll probably try to go see the movie.

If the movie is too distressing for veterans, they should simply leave, Gerdeman said.

"Something like that is going to trigger off memories about their own combat experience. They can learn to handle the anxiety, but the memories will always be there," he said.

Some veterans who hadn't seen the movie were skeptical it could capture what it was like to be there.

"They can show the blood, but they can't create the smell and all the rest that goes with it," said Russell Bender, 73, of Chambersburg, Pa., who flew a B-26 bomber over Normandy the day after D-Day.

"The thing you won't see that I saw was the impossible," Cochran said, such as a soldier with a bullet through his helmet still alive.

Cochran was wounded at St.-Lo. As he walked back for help, soldiers he passed gave him shots of morphine from their army issue. Cochran lost his left arm and spent 11 months in the hospital.

Gregg Davis of Mercersburg, Pa., picked out one inaccuracy just from the previews - the captain is wearing his stripes on his helmet.

"That was a no-no. A sniper would pick them off in a hurry," said Davis, 73, a retired history teacher at James Buchanan High School who went into Germany with the 89th Division after the D-Day invasion.

Although he is skeptical of the new Hollywood version of D-Day, Davis still plans to see the movie because he likes Director Steven Spielberg.

Bender said he had mixed feelings about the value of recreating the war.

"I don't think any war should be portrayed as a glory thing because it really isn't," he said. On the other hand, people need to remember the sacrifices that were made.

"It's about time a lot of young people see what real misery is," said Byron Ashburn, 72, of Chambersburg, Pa., who served in the U.S. Navy in the South Pacific.

Ashburn said people need to remember the horrors of the war to avoid repeating them.

For non-veterans, going to see "Saving Private Ryan" might be like going to the Holocaust Museum - difficult but necessary, said the Rev. John Schildt of Chewsville.

Schildt did postwar service with the 29th Blue Gray Division of the Maryland National Guard, a unit that hit the beach in Normandy on D-Day.

"Freedom has a price. Unfortunately, the cost is people's lives," Schildt said.

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