My Memorial Day memories are shaped by a proud Jewish veteran who cared deeply for others.
Larry Babitts was a proud Jewish veteran of the United States Army who had been wounded in the Korean and Vietnam wars. In addition to being active in a number of veteran-related activities, Larry traveled regularly from Harrisburg, PA to Walter Reed in Bethesda, Maryland to visit, comfort and cheer up soldiers who had been injured on the battlefield. . Years ago, I asked Larry if I could accompany him on one of his visits.
While serving as a U.S. Army infantryman in the Korean War, Larry had his legs broken by an enemy landmine that killed some of his comrades. Realizing that his unit had ventured into a heavily mined area, Larry lay on the ground, writhing in pain, thinking that no one would risk their life to evacuate it. But one brave soldier was determined to get Larry off that Korean hill. Larry remembered the sound of the soldier’s voice vividly, but had absolutely no idea who the soldier was or even what he looked like.
Larry was eventually evacuated to the United States where he spent nearly two years at Walter Reed recovering from his injuries. Unable to thank the soldier whose act of kindness saved his life, Larry decided to “give back” by visiting and sharing his story with a new generation of injured soldiers. He did his best to encourage those whose experiences he could so clearly identify with.
Larry Babitts presented Noel Cheryl Bickford with the Legion of Honor bronze medal in 2014.
We were fortunate to visit several young soldiers and their families that day. The first patient we saw was a fellow Pennsylvanian. He had been injured by a homemade bomb in Iraq. While all of his limbs were fortunately intact, he suffered a severe concussion and faced a lengthy recovery.
The second soldier we saw was a young officer whose vehicle had been hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan. With his wife at his bedside, he was recovering from the amputation of a leg below the knee. I was incredibly impressed with his positive attitude. He told us that he had nothing but gratitude for the army’s efforts. He had been injured about a year and a half earlier, and in an effort to save his leg, the army had operated on him more than ten times. As we talked, he thanked a visiting doctor for the hospital’s efforts on his behalf. He remarked that “no private health insurance would have paid for ten surgeries”.
While I hope the injured soldiers and their family members enjoyed my visit, I clearly saw how much they enjoyed Larry’s. In Larry, they saw someone who understood their pain, their anxieties and their concerns. In Larry, they met a person who spent two years recovering from his injuries in that same hospital – then went on to lead and enjoy a fulfilled life. Larry has given these brave young men a greater sense of hope, optimism and reassurance that they are not alone.
Sadly, Larry passed away in 2015. As we celebrate Memorial Day this year, let us remember the many brave American servicemen who sacrificed so much for our freedoms. And let us remember the legacy of Larry Babitts whose empathy, kindness and caring made all the difference for many soldiers facing difficult challenges.
A version of this article appears on OU.org