On Veterans Day, three local war vets reflect on service, sacrifice
Betty Gilby, 101, and Bob Tauber, 96, served in World War II. Dan Sheehan fought in the Iraq War
Thousands of San Diegans will raise a flag this morning and lay flowers on graves to honor America’s living and departed military service members for Veterans Day. Today, there are nearly 18 million American veterans in the United States, and nearly three-quarters of them served during this nation’s armed conflicts.
Betty Gilby of Fallbrook, 101, was injured while serving as a combat dietician for the Army near the frontlines in Italy during World War II. Bob Tauber, 96, of La Jolla, was hit by a mortar shell at the Battle of the Bulge in World War II and he later witnessed the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. Dan Sheehan, 46, of Encinitas, flew a Cobra helicopter and did ground missions during the Iraq War. He came home without a visible scratch, but the emotional scars that combat inflicted on him led him to write a book that’s now required reading for U.S. Marines.
All three war veterans enlisted by choice to proudly serve their country, and two of them grew up in families with rich military histories. But not all of them came home with positive memories. Here are their stories of service and sacrifice.
‘The burden of peace’
Last month, the U.S. Marine Corps updated its reading list for active-duty Marines, and among its 46 recommended titles is “After Action: The True Story of a Cobra Pilot’s Journey.” Marine veteran Dan Sheehan’s self-published 2012 memoir explains how his combat experiences in Iraq in 2003-2004 caused a life-altering condition of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Now a full-time author who has lived in Encinitas since 2013 with his wife and two children, Sheehan said he had long dreamed of seeing “After Action” on the Corps’ reading list because he hopes it will help other Marine vets process their own combat trauma.
Sheehan comes from a family of Navy aviators. His father and grandfather flew planes in the Navy, and his wife and brother flew helicopters for the Marines. At 18, Sheehan enlisted in the Corps, trained at Camp Pendleton and achieved his goal of flying a Super Cobra gunship helicopter for the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
In East Timor, he flew humanitarian missions in 2000. Then in February 2003, he was sent to Kuwait, where the following month he spent 96 hours in the air over three weeks taking out observation posts, anti-aircraft guns and hostile soldiers during the invasion of Iraq. A year later, he returned to Iraq where he spent six months with a special operations team extracting enemy insurgents.
During his first combat tour, Sheehan said he began having disturbing visions of buddies and enemies dying in horrible ways and his mind and adrenaline raced constantly. In order to keep his head clear in the critical moments of battle, he taught himself to compartmentalize and lock away his worst thoughts, memories and fears.
After he retired from the Corps in 2008, Sheehan thought he had moved on from his tortured past. He got married, took a job flying civilian aircraft on the East Coast and became a dad. But cracks began to surface quickly. His mind continued to race, he was anxious all the time, he drank too much, he couldn’t control his emotions and he experienced a flashback while driving on the freeway.
The only thing that could relax his mind, if only briefly, was spearfishing and free-diving, which brought him back into the moment of battle, but this time his opponents were fish. “What that did for me was it gave me a stepdown. If combat was heroin, then diving was a good beer,” he said.
The breaking point came on Aug. 7, 2009, when he got a call from his dad with news that his younger brother, Dave, had been injured in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. Dave survived and has since made a full recovery. But in that instant Sheehan heard the news, all of the emotions he’d locked down since his last combat tour in 2004 came exploding out.
“Consciously, I heard that Dave was fine and in the hospital but unconsciously my body reacted as if he was dead,” Sheehan said. “That was what gave me that slap in the face. There was a choice to be made whether to bury and stuff away these emotions and hope it doesn’t come back, or take the other road to face it, pull everything out of the dark and take a look at it. I chose the latter.”
Although he’d never written more than a college term paper, Sheehan started writing down all of his war memories for a memoir. The first draft took nine months, then with book consultant David Hazard, he completed nine more drafts over the next 2-1/2 years. Sheehan describes writing as the “skeleton key to open locked rooms in my mind.”
The most important self-discovery he made during the writing process was coming to terms with the guilt he felt for the lives that he took in Iraq. He calls that pain “the burden of peace — living the rest of my life unsure if I’m already damned for what I’ve done.”
Since Sheehan published “After Action” on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing eight years ago, it has won numerous book awards including the gold medal at the 2014 Independent Publisher Book Awards, silver medal at the 2014 Military Writers Society book awards and it ranked No. 5 on Military Times’ “Best Military Books of 2013" list. Since then, Sheehan published a follow-up book in 2015, “Continuing Actions: A Warrior’s Guide to Coming Home.” He has also just finished a his first book of fiction, a contemporary fantasy novel.
Asked this week if he feels the “burden of peace” has grown any lighter in recent years, he says he’s not “cured” of his trauma but he has learned the tools needed to cope with the feelings whenever they bubble up.
“I do feel I’ve gotten better at carrying the burden, as if it has become a pebble versus a boulder,” he said. “It never truly goes away, but learning to allow myself to grieve — for lost friends as well as the people I killed — has become a powerful tool for self-help.”
Sheehan’s books “After Action” and “Continuing Actions” can be found on Amazon.com.
‘A terrible way to solve problems’
Bob Tauber said he knew very well why he was fighting the Nazis when his army unit landed in Marseilles, France, just after the D-Day invasion in 1944. A 20-year-old Jewish man of Chicago birth, he’d heard about the slaughter of Jews in German concentration camps.
Tauber had an “H” etched on his dog tag, which stood for “Hebrew.” He feared what the Germans would do to him if he was ever captured. He wasn’t ever captured but he did see first-hand what the Germans were capable of when he volunteered to carry the bodies of concentration camp survivors into a hospital in France.
“They put these bodies on the stretchers that you couldn’t believe with your own eyes,” he said. “They weighed 80 or 90 pounds and they were too weak to speak. They just looked at you. I tried to comfort them and tell them ‘we’re Americans and you’re safe.’ But some of them never made it through the doors of the hospital before they died. It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever witnessed.”
Tauber had originally tried to enlist in the Army after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, but he was rejected due to partial color blindness. But as the need for soldiers grew, he was drafted in 1944 and sent by the Army to a technical training program in Cincinnati. Then as the war in Europe intensified, he was called up to fight in the 94th Cavalry, 14th Armored Division of Gen. Patton’s Second Army.
With his cavalry unit, Tauber fought his way north to France’s Alsace-Lorraine region and beyond. Under a crescent moon on New Year’s Eve 1944, they took part in what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. It was so dark that night, he couldn’t tell who he was shooting at, except by the shape of the men’s helmets. His Thompson submachine gun was no match for the German tanks.
“We had 37-millimeter cannons, but it was like throwing ping-pong balls at their Tiger tanks,” said Tauber, whose left arm was badly injured that night. He self-administered morphine, was strapped into a tourniquet to stop the bleeding and he walked through the snow to an aid station 1.5 miles away.
He was in Bavaria when the European war ended and was waiting for orders to ship out to Japan for a land invasion when the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs and Japan surrendered. Tauber said he was grateful to see the end of a war he had grown to hate.
“It’s the worst possible way to settle differences,” he said. “You kill people you don’t even know, who may have the same background and family ideas you have but they were possibly also drafted. It’s a terrible way to solve problems.”
After the war, Tauber used the GI Bill to earn an electrical engineering degree at the University of California, Berkeley. Then he moved to Los Angeles where he spent many years engineering circuits and technology for the fast-growing television industry. In the meantime, he married and had two children, Daniel and Jenna. Because Daniel had severe asthma that was agitated by the smog in L.A., Tauber moved his family in 1969 to Pacific Beach, which was then known for its clean air.
He started an electronics company that made custom battery packs for startup medical companies in San Diego and ran it for 25 years before selling it in 1996. That same year, he went through a divorce and a few years later he met the woman he calls his “co-vivant,” Sherri Chessen. They’ve lived together for 17 years, the past 12 at the White Sands La Jolla retirement community.
According to the National World War II Museum, only 2 percent of the 16 million Americans who served in the war are still alive. Tauber believes he is the only surviving member of his unit. Enduring the war’s horrors have made him grateful for the life he has today.
“When I was 20, I often wondered if I’d live to see 21, to see my family again, to get married, or would I die in this snow-covered forest in Germany,” he said. “You realize that so much in life is out of your control, so many things are going on that affect your life. There were so many comrades in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could’ve been you. You had no control; it was just random chaos.”
‘An army marches on its stomach’
Lt. Betty Gilby felt the call of duty in March 1943 while working as a therapeutic dietitian at Doctor’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. The army needed volunteers so she asked herself, “Why shouldn’t I join?”
Born in Nebraska and later raised in La Mesa, she came from a long line of veterans, including ancestors who served in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War and World War I.
In August 1943, she shipped out to North Africa with the personnel of the 70th General Hospital on the USS Edmund B. Alexander, which “zig-zagged across the Atlantic evading torpedoes from the U-boats,” Gilby wrote in her 2019 autobiography “Remembering World War II: A Female Officer in the 5th Army in Italy.”
Gilby served two years on active duty in North Africa and later in Italy with the U.S. Fifth Army as they moved from Anzio Beach into northern Italy as part of the Allied attack on the Axis forces. She spent much of her time in hospital tents behind the front lines figuring out how to feed hundreds of wounded patients with meager supplies and little equipment, often with bombs exploding all around her.
“She stood up to the head of the mess kitchen in order to get the GIs better food and nutrition,” said her son Joe Gilby. “It took an especially strong-willed woman back in those days. ‘An army marches on its stomach,’ as Napoleon said, and she knew that.”
It’s been more than 75 years since the war, but Gilby still exhibits the same courage and tenacity. She fell at her Fallbrook home and broke her neck several years ago but was walking again in a few months. At 101, she’s one of the oldest and few local female World War II veterans.
In October 1943, Gilby helped set up the 70th General hospital in tents near Oran in Northern Africa. Patients lined up outside the mess tents in the rain and after each meal, someone shoveled out the mud they tracked in. But nobody was assigned to wash the dishes. One evening, Gilby called the colonel in charge and warned him if somebody didn’t come that night to wash the dishes, there would be no breakfast in the morning. She won that battle.
As the war shifted in Europe, Gilby shipped out for Anzio in January 1944. The hospital there was a group of tents under constant bombardment. Every night, the Germans would fire a 220-mm howitzer gun, aiming for the nearby ammunition dump, but often falling short.
Gilby dug a hole in the floor of the tent she slept in, making an opening just big enough to crawl into so she could get some sleep and be somewhat protected. One night, the hospital was bombed in a moonlight raid, killing eight. At one point, she was wounded by shrapnel.
“My army career comprised the most moving experiences in my life,” Gilby wrote in her book. “It went from the boredom and tedium of waiting in the staging areas to the intense dawn-to dusk work in organizing and supervising the preparation of food for 1,000 patients with meager supplies and primitive equipment; from the extreme terror of being bombed and strafed to the joyous welcome by liberated Italians; from the anger and helplessness in the face of war to the feeling of pride in helping to achieve peace.”
After the war, Gilby went back to college on the GI Bill in Chicago, where she met Joseph Gilby, a former Army staff sergeant. After they married, she had four children and worked as a dietician, did research and taught elementary school. The Gilbys moved to Fallbrook in 1990, where he passed away in 1999.
A lifetime member of Fallbrook’s VFW Post 1924, Betty Gilby has been active in veterans events over the years in her community, including appearances in her uniform in Fallbrook’s Veterans Day parades. After meeting Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught of the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation during an Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C., in 2016, Gilby was inspired to finish her 119-page memoir, which is available on Amazon.
“She has been a great inspiration. She up and joined the army, earned the rank of a lieutenant, went to college — which in those days was quite something for a woman,” said her daughter Joanne Gilby.
— Pam Kragen and Linda McIntosh are reporters for The San Diego Union-Tribune
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