My Visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center

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May 29, 2022

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My Memorial Day memories are shaped by a proud Jewish combat veteran who cared deeply about others.

Larry Babitts was a proud Jewish US Army combat veteran who had been wounded in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In addition to being active in a number of veteran related activities, Larry regularly traveled from Harrisburg, PA to Walter Reed in Bethesda, Maryland to visit, comfort, and lift the spirits of soldiers who had been wounded on the battlefield. Years ago, I had asked Larry if I could accompany him on one of his visits.

While serving as a US Army infantryman during the Korean War, Larry had his legs shattered by an enemy landmine that killed some of his fellow soldiers. Realizing that his unit had ventured into a heavily mined area, Larry lay on the ground writhing in pain, thinking that no one would risk his life to evacuate him. But one brave soldier was determined to get Larry off of that Korean hilltop. Larry vividly remembered the sound of the soldier’s voice but had absolutely no idea who the soldier was or what he even looked like.

Larry was eventually evacuated to the US where he spent almost two years at Walter Reed recovering from his wounds. Unable to thank the soldier whose act of kindness saved his life, Larry decided to ‘return the favor’ by visiting and sharing his story with a new generation of wounded soldiers. He did his best to encourage those whose experiences he could so clearly relate to.

Larry Babitts give Noel Cheryl Bickford the Bronze Medallion of the Legion of Honor, in 2014.

We had a chance to visit with several young soldiers and their families that day. The first patient we saw was a fellow Pennsylvanian. He had been wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq. While all his limbs were thankfully intact, he had suffered a severe concussion and faced a long recovery.

The second soldier we saw was a young officer whose vehicle had been hit by an IED (improvised explosive device) in Afghanistan. With his wife at his bedside, he was recovering from just having had one of his legs amputated below the knee. I was incredibly impressed by his positive attitude. He told us that he had nothing but gratitude for the Army's efforts. He had been injured about a year and a half earlier, and in an effort to save his leg, the Army had operated on him more than ten times. While we talked, he thanked a visiting doctor for the hospital’s efforts on his behalf. He remarked that, "No private health insurance would've paid for ten surgeries."

While I hope the wounded soldiers and their family members appreciated my visit, I clearly saw how much they appreciated Larry’s. In Larry, they saw someone who understood their pain, anxieties, and concerns. In Larry, they met a person who spent two years recovering from his wounds in that same hospital -- and then went on to lead and enjoy a fulfilling life. Larry provided those brave young men a greater sense of hope, optimism, and comfort, and that they are not alone.

Sadly, Larry passed away in 2015. As we mark this year’s Memorial Day, let’s remember the many brave US servicemen and women who have sacrificed so much for our freedoms. And let’s remember the legacy of Larry Babitts whose empathy, kindness and care made a world of a difference to many soldiers facing difficult challenges.

A version of this article appears on OU.org

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