A Veteran's Story
Special By Robert Bernstein
"Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices." - President Harry Truman
For many American families, Veteran's Day 2018 will be another chance to remember the generational service and the sacrifice of their loved ones in the armed forces of the United States. With the passage of time and the focus of the nation on a variety of other interests, days of recognition like Veteran's Day are often the only time many Americans remember these heroes.
For Phillip Down, Veteran's Day is an opportunity to immerse himself in his family legacy of service to the nation. Mr. Down - the Chief Executive Officer of the Doctor's Community Hospital in Lanham, MD - has a very clear and deep understanding of the importance of making the decision to serve this country.
A native of Lynn, Massachusetts, Phil Down graduated from Norwich University in Vermont, where he studied economics and was a member of the school's Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). Upon graduation, Mr. Down was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army and entered active service in the Medical Service Corps. His service coincided with the Vietnam War, however, at the time of his commission the United States was drawing down its military commitment to that conflict and subsequently, he left active duty. Upon his return to civilian life, Phil Down began his career in hospital administration. After earning a master’s degree in hospital administration at The George Washington University he served in a variety of administrative positions leading to his current role where he has served for 25 years. His expertise in running a large urban medical facility led to his appointment as Commissioner of the Health Services Cost Review Commission for the State of Maryland, where he served for eight years.
The lessons of commitment and sacrifice were clearly learned from his father - George Phillip Down - and his mother - Beatrice LaMontagne Down. Both of his parents were members of "The Greatest Generation", having served actively during World War II.
George Down grew up in Arlington, Massachusetts, where he worked as a caddy at the local golf club and played football for his high school team. His leadership as the team captain of the junior varsity as well as performance on the varsity team led to a scholarship to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. During his junior year at Brown the United States entered WWII because of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.
Mr. Down joined the US Marine Corps where he served as a drill instructor and then entered Officer Candidate School (OCS). Upon completion of OCS he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant. He was later trained as a paratrooper and assigned to lead a demolition platoon.
The United States embarked on a very difficult campaign in the Pacific Theatre to retake a series of islands held by the Japanese with the goal of eventually capturing the home islands of Japan. The Marines, with their training and expertise in amphibious landings, were generally the first force involved in these battles. They were extremely costly battles with many casualties and hard-earned lessons; quite a few of these battles are a big part of Marine Corps lore.
The battle to retake the volcanic island of Iwo Jima, with the goal of capturing a set of airfields on the island, was one of the costliest battles of the war with almost 7000 Americans killed and over 19,000 wounded. The image of the raising of the American flag over Mount Suribachi is an iconic symbol of the war in the Pacific Theatre and became the basis for the design of the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.
Lieutenant Down's platoon was assigned to the demolition of the entrenched bunkers utilizing both flamethrowers and Bangalore torpedoes. Bangalore torpedoes were long metal tubes filled with explosives that were connected like pipe sections then slid into the bunker before being detonated.
On the fourteenth day of the battle, Down's platoon was ambushed by a Japanese infantry unit and the lieutenant was struck by machine gun fire resulting in serious wounds to both his right shoulder and leg. Due to intense enemy fire, Lieutenant Down was not evacuated from the battlefield and was left where he fell for the night. Those hours before dawn proved to be perilous, as attempts were made by the Japanese to capture or kill him and in the struggles through the night, he killed two enemy soldiers. Upon evacuation the decision was made to send him back to Hawaii as his leg wounds were very severe.
It was determined that the recovery period for Lieutenant Down would take considerable time and as such he was assigned to Chelsea Naval Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. It was at this facility that he was assigned a US Navy Nurse - Beatrice LaMontagne. Although his leg was so terribly damaged that doctors at one point wanted to amputate it, the lieutenant's strength and perseverance supported with the care of his nurse greatly aided his recovery. He often had to return to the hospital for removal of shrapnel that was a result of this wound.
Beatrice La Montagne grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts near the border with New Hampshire. Since she had a four-year nursing degree, as opposed to the two-year degree that was the norm for the time, she was commissioned into the US Navy Nurse Corps.
As George Down became ambulatory, he obtained an apartment in Boston on Boylston Street near Fenway Park and he attended many baseball games as a result. Because the military was held in such high esteem during that time, the tickets were often free. The close relationship between patient and caregiver led to romance and then love; according to Phillip Down, it was a romance very much steeped in the flavor of Red Sox Baseball of course. The couple married in 1946 and George Down was given a discharge from active service in 1948 due to his wounds. He went on to work for the Travelers Insurance Company where he remained until his retirement upon his 68th birthday.
Phillip Down recently spoke of his father's service in simple but eloquent terms: "He did his service, came home and moved on to concentrate on his family.” He was quite clear that he always retains pride in military service – his father’s as well as his own - because of the character it instilled as well as the lesson it taught to put the country and others before oneself. His feelings echo the thoughts of the writer Joseph Campbell who said: "A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself."
The military of contemporary times is not always on the mind of many Americans, yet the sacrifices remain for service people. The nation has some very serious issues caring for its veterans once they leave active service, particularly a broken health care system. In addition, today we have a different attitude towards the behavioral issues that returning vets bring with them as we want these “hidden wounds” treated as effectively as the visible injuries. However, according to Mr. Down, one of the most unfortunate aspects of the veteran’s system is that it does not have adequate staff to deal with these serious concerns. The stress levels for military personnel are far higher as well, as they are called upon to serve many tours without enough rest in between.
So, as we move towards a three-day weekend in 2018 as Veteran's Day falls on Sunday let's try to remember these men and women as the strength of our nation and their sacrifices as we go about doing our early holiday shopping, sleeping in or recovering from rousing Sunday football celebrations. Veterans are the treasure of our nation.