“His fellow soldiers assumed he wouldn’t survive his wounds—and he nearly didn’t. Eventually, he was sent back to the US in a full body cast and spent thirty-nine months in recovery. He had lost all mobility in his right arm and hand, and getting dressed in the morning would be a challenge for the rest of his life.”
This is how the Wall Street Journal describes Bob Dole’s World War II war experience. The longtime legislator and presidential candidate died in his sleep Sunday morning at the age of ninety-eight. Like an entire generation of Americans, including my father, his life and legacy were shaped by his service in World War II and its lifelong effects.
The continuing cost of courage
Dole was born in the small western Kansas town of Russell, where his father ran an egg and cream stand and his mother sold sewing machines door to door. As a young man, Dole washed cars, delivered newspapers, and worked as a soda jerk at the local drugstore.
A three-sport letterman in high school, he made the basketball team at the University of Kansas under legendary coach Phog Allen. Then war broke out. Dole joined the Army and was made a second lieutenant in the infantry. Late in the war, in 1945, his unit took part in a spring offensive in Italy. His platoon was assigned to take a hill across a mine-laden field covered by enemy snipers. Dole was hit in the right shoulder by exploding shrapnel. Two rounds of medics were gunned down attempting to rescue him before he was pulled to safety.
In his final months of treatment, Dole met a young occupational therapist named Phyllis Holden at a hospital dance. The two were married and returned to Kansas, where Dole earned a law degree and began his political career. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1960 and the Senate in 1968. He divorced Phyllis in 1972 and married Elizabeth in 1975.
Dole was nominated for vice president in 1976 and for president in 1996. In 1997, after losing to incumbent president Bill Clinton, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Mr. Clinton.
He was a driving force behind the creation of the World War II Memorial on the National Mall. He also supported Freedom Honor Flights, organizing trips to Washington for World War II veterans so they could visit the memorial built in their honor.
Bob Dole would suffer the results of his war injuries for the rest of his life. The New York Times reported that he could not tie his shoes (he wore loafers). He could not cut his food with a knife. He could not lift his daughter, who had to stand on a chair so he could hug her. He clutched a pen in his right hand to keep his fingers from splaying and to ward off people who might try to shake it. He slept while clutching the sawed-off top of a wooden crutch wrapped in gauze. “It relaxes my hand,” he said. “Otherwise, it gets sort of doubled up in there.”
When I visited the Pearl Harbor memorial
Bob Dole was one of America’s great war heroes, but if my father’s experience is any guide, Mr. Dole would not have described himself that way.
Like the famous senator, my father enlisted in the Army during World War II. He also saw action, in his case losing all but seventeen men in his three-hundred-soldier unit.
He seldom spoke of his war experience, but it scarred him spiritually for the rest of his life. He was so active in church before the war that some of his friends thought he might go into vocational ministry. After he returned from the South Pacific, he never attended church again.
Dad considered the true heroes to be the men and women who died in the service of our country. Beginning with Pearl Harbor and its 2,403 war dead, World War II ultimately cost 407,316 military personnel their lives. As we observe today the eightieth anniversary of the “date which will live in infamy,” each of us should pause to remember those who died in battle that Americans might live in freedom.
And, as I noted to myself when my wife and I visited the Pearl Harbor memorial earlier this year, we should ask ourselves whether we are answering their courage with our own.
“The king is not saved by his great army”
Most of us are not fighting military battles in defense of our nation, but every Christian is stationed on the front lines of the spiritual conflicts of our day. As Paul noted, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
There is a battle going on for the soul of our nation. More Americans than ever before dismiss biblical truth as superstition and biblical morality as outdated. A radical ideology rejects biblical faith as homophobic, bigoted, and dangerous to human flourishing and seeks to replace it with a secular insistence on personal “authenticity” at all costs.
This rising cultural opposition to biblical truth is unprecedented in American history. Like our Pearl Harbor heroes and other military veterans, we must answer the call to serve our nation spiritually with sacrificial courage. However, in this conflict we need to remember, “The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength” (Psalm 33:16). Rather, “the eye of the Lᴏʀᴅ is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love” (v. 18).
Human words cannot save human hearts. You and I cannot convict even a single sinner of a single sin or convert a single soul. This battle must therefore be waged on our knees as we ask and trust God to empower us and use us to advance his kingdom in our culture. David’s testimony should be ours: “You rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all” (1 Chronicles 29:12).
“When I am weak, then I am strong”
When our lost culture rejects those who proclaim biblical morality, we can say with Paul, “For the sake of Christ, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10). We can remember the heroes like Sen. Bob Dole who have defended our nation with sacrificial courage. And we can emulate their commitment in the strength of our Lord (Philippians 4:13).
When last did you pay a significant price to serve your country by serving your Lord?
How will you honor our military heroes by honoring our King today?