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World War II vets talking more about horrors of combat

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Lt. Don Frederick
A World War II photo of Lt. Don Frederick, Army Ranger, raised in Albert Lea, sent to World War II with a Minnesota-based artillery unit until he volunteered in 1942 for months of intense physical training including hand to hand combat in preparation for service with the 4th Ranger Battalion.
Photo courtesy Don Frederick

We're in the Ranger room with 86 year old Don Frederick of Richfield.  The Ranger room is the basement of Frederick's house, the place where he keeps his World War II mementos - maps, flags, photos, emblems, diaries, medals, books and more.

His war stories run the gamut. They include warm memories of welcome wartime respites in scenic Italian seaside towns to recollections of brutal training, bad food, terrible weather and the horrors of combat.

Don Frederick was a Ranger in the Army's 4th Ranger Battalion.  Rangers were commandos who went on missions behind enemy lines.  He recalls an assignment in a raid on a German base in North Africa to capture 10 prisoners for interrogation.

Don Frederick
World War II Army Ranger veteran Don Frederick served as a commando and eventually led a company that staged raids behind enemy lines in Tunisia, Sicily and Italy until he was captured and held by the Germans as a prisoner of war for more than 14 months.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Not many of the enemy soldiers surrendered willingly.

"A lot of them were shot, a lot of them were bayoneted, a lot of them were grenaded with hand grenades.   If they didn't give up right away, why, they were put aside," he says.

'Put aside' means killed.

Several years ago the Veterans Administration realized some older veterans are troubled by the memories of war like these even 60 years later.

So, during their visits to the VA to discuss their physical condition the vets are given the chance to talk with professionals who can help them cope with troubling memories.

One of the listeners is Dr. Susan Czapiewski, a psychiatrist at the Veterans hospital in Minneapolis and an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota.

Dr. Susan Czapiewski
Dr. Susan Czapiewski is director of the Geriatric Psychiatry Fellowship at the University of Minnesota.
Photo: University of Minnesota, used by permission

Winter and cold weather, it turns out, trigger anxiety in one of the World War II vets Czapiewski talks to, a man who fought in the Battle of the Bulge during one of Europe's coldest Winters on record.

"He watched a lot of friends die, they weren't able to bury them, the bodies were stacked like cord wood, and so whenever he's cold it brings back a lot of those memories," she says. 

The Veterans Administration's estimate is one in 20 older veterans have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from experiences like these.

The stress and anxiety they dealt with during World War II is difficult to imagine.

One day during a mission in Italy Don Frederick was captured by the Germans.  From then until war's end more than 14 months later Frederick was a prisoner.  

His German captors interrogated him, shuttled him around to nearly half a dozen prison camps without the 21 year old having any idea what would happen to him.

Don & Carolyn Frederick
Frederick met his wife Carolyn Johnson Frederick when he returned to Minneapolis in l945 after World War II and they married in l946.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

He wanted to know what his captors were going to do with him and where they were taking him, but he also says he didn't panic, Frederick says.

Until now Don Frederick has related his World War II experiences to only a close circle of fellow veterans.  He's never discussed the experiences in detail with his wife, his three children, or even his brother, another World War II vet.

That has changed.

Frederick is now sharing his accounts with people willing to listen to what he has to say including Dr. Susan Czapiewski.  The talking is therapy, Czapiewski says.  Talk therapy hinges on the talker making a connection with a listener, she says.

"There's a muscle in our middle ear that focuses, that allows us focus on that human voice and sort of drown out what else is going on in the environment, and so there's this strong very primitive social connection that happens that is very soothing and very calming and very healing," she says.

Don Frederick's mind is razor sharp, and his spirits seem good, but he has an incurable illness that is taking a toll on his body.

"Some days I feel good, and they say I look good, but inside I don't feel so good sometimes.

It may be Frederick is more willing to give his account because  he senses a deadline and wants to make sure people know what happened during the war.

Dr. Susan Czapiewski backs off from calling talk therapy a cure for the wartime memories that cause stress and anxiety in some older military veterans.

"Some people need to talk it out (while) some people don't.  I think that a person knows what they need to do, and a good therapist will meet the person where he or she is and not try to say, 'Come on, come on, tell me more, tell me more,' but really be respectful of how much the person can say at any given time...." she says.

Don Frederick has chosen to speak more freely about his military service in World War II and show visitors the Ranger room in the basement of his Richfield home.

It appears to be his form of talk therapy as he faces the road ahead.