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A Grandfather's War Stories—A Commentary by Ken Harbaugh ’08

The following commentary aired on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” on October 9, 2007.

A Grandfather's War Stories
By Ken Harbaugh ’08

When I was little, I used to love a good war story.  My grandfather flew bombers during World War II, and whenever he'd talk of his exploits, his tales always seemed to end with a punch line.  War, for all I knew, was fun.

Like the time his crew was stationed in New Guinea, sleeping in tents, and my grandfather was awakened in the dark by his copilot whispering, "There's a giant snake on top of me!" My granddad reached for his pistol, preparing to shoot it off, but thought to lift the blanket at the last second.  No snake.  Just the copilot's arm, asleep on his own chest.  Or the time their plane's emergency life raft deployed in flight and wrapped itself around the tail, and the machine gunner thought he'd deflate it by riddling it with
bullets, and instead nearly shot off the tail itself.

Of course, there were stories my grandfather didn't tell, until I was much older.  How he came home . . . body full of shrapnel and a hole clean through his thigh.  How his plane, flying solo, was ambushed by an entire squadron of enemy fighters, and every officer on board was wounded and bleeding with a thousand miles between them and home.

When I listen to my buddies talk about Iraq and Afghanistan, I'm struck by how similar their tone is to my grandfather's.  His war was different – we all know that -- but there's a strange sameness in the telling of it, the way humor is wrung from the most awful things.

When I was nine, my family visited the American Military Cemetery in Luxembourg, near where the Battle of the Bulge took place.  I had never seen my grandfather cry before. But watching his face as taps was played, I finally made the connection between the tales he told and the real cost of his war.  I began to ask for the other stories, as much as I knew they might terrify me.  Sometimes they did, but the way my grandfather related them made me want to listen.  He even showed me his leg, where the explosive round passed through before laying open his copilot's neck.

Bullets today aren't any friendlier than they were back then.  I've seen what they do.  And now there are IED's, and suicide truck bombs, and all manner of horrors my grandfather never faced.  War stories will never sound the same to me as they did when I was little.  I see past the punch lines now.  Yeah, I still laugh along with the double-amputee who jokes about losing $300 worth of tattoos.  But I know how real the pain is when he tells
me his only regret is that he didn't stop enough shrapnel with his own body to save his squad mate from getting hit.

They call my grandfather's generation "The Greatest."  But I've seen what the best of my generation has endured in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there is greatness among them.  And you know, they tell a damn good war story too. Even if they do sometimes break my heart.