Vets of an earlier war help dedicate hospital chapel

January 18, 1991|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Evening Sun Staff

Sidney Simon, a past commander of the Jewish War Veterans of Maryland, flew 65 missions in World War II. One was in the first wave of bombers on D-Day.

"I'm hurt. I'm hurt by the world," he mourned last night after Iraqi missiles exploded in Israel. "I fought for my country, fought to make the world a better place. But the world's turning into a cesspool."

Simon, who lives in Randallstown, watched the grim news on television.

"I feel so damn helpless and hopeless," he said. "I'm just sitting here at a loss. I can't take any action. My hands are tied . . . I was an English major in college, but I can't find the words to describe this."

It was different earlier in the day. Simon was one of about 100 people who attended the serene, midday dedication of the new chapel at Fort Howard Veterans Hospital, which is near Edgemere at the southeastern tip of Baltimore County.

But even then allied bombers and missiles were blasting Iraq and Kuwait. The most startling sound at the dedication was the striking of a piano key.

"I fly every one of those missions with the boys over there," Simon said of the feeling he gets watching tapes of the allied planes taking off in Saudi Arabia. "I know what it's like not to have any idea what you're getting into. . . .

"If I could I'd shake every one of their hands; I would. A lot of old guys like me, if we could get over there and do anything to help, we would."

Simon, who said he's 68 or 69 -- "I can't remember which; I'm feeling old" -- operated the radio and fired the machine gun in the upper turret on a B-26 during World War II. On D-Day, he said, he watched the invasion from this perch.

"I saw our soldiers hit the beaches," he said. "That's why I'm so TC sensitized to this. I was sitting up there watching them get knocked off."

The war in the Persian Gulf brings back his own haunting memories. "I had a buddy shot down on his first mission -- 18 years old," Simon said.

And that, he said, is just one of many memories.

Other veterans at Fort Howard -- there are about 230 patients there now -- said that they, too, are recalling scenes from their war past.

"You never forget war once you've been in it," said Bob Hall, 53, of Highlandtown, who attended the chapel dedication in his wheelchair.

He lost a leg when he stepped on a land mine in Vietnam in 1964.

"I'm here right now to get a new leg," he said, tapping his right knee. "They're making me a new prosthesis."

He has spent so much time at Fort Howard, he said, it's his second home. "I have diabetes, too," he said.

Like Simon, he would like to help the troops in the Middle East.

"You want to be there again," he said. "I guess you'd rather it be you over there instead of these young guys. They're so unseasoned. They don't know yet what it's like to lose a buddy."

When the buddies are men and women from around Fort Howard -- maybe from Edgemere, maybe from Dundalk -- the Rev. John T. Brown, the chief chaplain at Fort Howard, will have the task of notifying the next of kin.

"You never get used to dealing with death," said Brown, who has worked at Fort Howard for 18 years. "I've stood at the bedsides of hundreds of men as they died. I've actually held the hands of a few dozen as they died."

The new chapel, which is bright and modern, may be the site of soldiers' funerals. It may also be where the wounded, after being returned to the states and possibly admitted to Fort Howard, come to meditate and pray.

Their prayers may be the same as the opening line of a hymn sung yesterday at the dedication. A choir of hospital workers sang: "Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me. . . . "

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