Obituaries and tributes to Bob Dole have ranged from glowing to catty. Invariably, they pick up on his disability, then focus on public service in Congress, candidacy for president, and – in some cases, backhandedly drag him into the morass as a Trump supporter. Most miss the point. Bob Dole is America – the best America produces, a life centered on courage, resilience, determination, and love of country.
The year was 1945, one of the most important in American history. In April, Hitler was on his heels, but Luftwaffe Field Marshall Albert Kesselring was still pressing the Italian Campaign, pinning Allies down, preventing reinforcement of Allied troops up against German borders.
The Army’s 10th Mountain Division was the tip of the spear, in combat south of Bologna, Italy, in the Apennine Mountains, through which ran what was left of Germany’s last defense, the “Gothic Line.”
The “Gothic Line,” reconfigured as the Germans retreated north, was a killing machine, even by German standards. Initially defined by geography, it amounted to Nazi Germany’s southern teeth.
Even in April, it amounted to 599,404 German troops, 2,300 machine gun nests, 479 big guns, countless defenses, all in high mountains favoring German positions. That was what young American boys faced.
One of them was young Bob Dole, a Kansas kid now second lieutenant, who had enlisted at age 19 in 1942. Now, he was in the thick of it. The Allies had to break the Germans in the Po Valley to get north. This would prove one of the toughest battles of the Italian Campaign, one of the roughest of the war.
All told, if you can imagine this, 29,560 young American boys were killed in the Italian Campaign, 82,180 wounded, another 7,410 captured. In the final offensive, in which Bob Dole – as a young officer – played a part, the Allies suffered 16,258 casualties, with 2,860 dead.
That is what it took to win the Italian Campaign, to secure that nation, in turn, to beat Nazi Germany, and secure freedom – which is ever at risk, but in that era saved. The losses were horrific, courage incredible.
Although Allied effort created a breakthrough in mid-April, forcing the Germans back came at a cost. Part of that cost was a devastating injury to young Bob Dole. Hit by a big German gun, he was paralyzed from the neck down, collar bone shattered, along with part of his spine and right arm.
Left for dead on the battlefield, when recovered, he was shipped to a Kansas hospital, where he was expected to die – by everybody except himself. He would face fevers to 109 degrees, failed treatments, and despondency. He would face loneliness, despair, and a reality hard for anyone to process.
This kid at 22, Bronze Star for heroism, two Purple Hearts, other decorations, now faced the idea of a life in paralysis. He was visited by a doctor named Kelikian, an orthopedist, realist, and someone who knew war, loss, and despair. This doctor – along with contributions from dimes to dollars from friends – gave the young boy a new attitude: Use what you have, what God left for you, and be grateful – always.
He was. Like young Americans of every stripe, color, creed, and heroic deed, he lifted his head, decided to conquer his fears, and began the arduous, no-guarantees process – one that would last years – of conscious, concerted, focused, un-self-pitying recovery.
As he had said on behalf of your freedom and mine, he said again – let nothing stand in the way, let my spirit not lag, let courage not depart me, keep me grateful and forward-looking. Multiple hospitals, countless operations, and two years later, he emerged to walk and to make more history.
Yes, he became those things people nod and clap for, member of the US House and Senate, a distinguished, patient, principled, at times stern, other times funny Majority Leader, eventually presidential candidate for the Republican Party, humble enough to parody himself, with a smile.
Yes, he led, this man who could never shake a hand, clap, or do what most can do without thought, who gripped a pencil in his unusable hand, and learned to write, live, give, and with grace use his other hand.
Yes, he was resolute, a patriot without apology from start to finish, who would – every Sunday – sit by the WWII Memorial … to greet and thank those WWII veterans who, in shrinking numbers, came on Honor Flights to see the WWII Monument.
At one time, there were 16 million of them – aging boys, who saved the free world and assume we will understand, remember, rise when called to do the same. Today, there are perhaps 240,000 left. They depart us daily, firm in silent salutes, confident we will appreciate what they did, hopeful.
Our duty is to remember this aspect of their multi-faceted lives because for many, most, perhaps all – that time when they stood and served, when they threw down for us, suffered incalculable loss, was to assure freedom would live in our day, as in theirs.
That period in the life of these young men, and in that of young Bob Dole, was incomprehensibly defining or redefining. It imposes a duty to remember, avoid being cynical and disparaging, rise above. They did, for us. We must, for them. Thank you, Senator Dole and young Lieutenant Bob Dole.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, a former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, a ten-year naval intelligence officer, author of “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is the National Spokesman for the Association of Mature American Citizens (AMAC) a 2.3 million-strong, non-partisan group for Americans 50+.