On Christmas Day 2004, former Senate majority leader Robert J. Dole had a chance encounter at Walter Reed Army Medical Center with Craig L. Nelson, a 21-year-old soldier who had been seriously wounded by a bomb in Baghdad.
Dole tried to comfort Nelson and his family as the National Guardsman from Bossier City, La., lay paralyzed from the neck down, hooked up to a respirator and a bunch of tubes.
"It was like seeing a mirror image of myself 60 years earlier," Dole recalled. "He was tall and muscular, about 6 feet, 1 1/2 inches, and about 185 pounds, almost identical to my World War II height and weight. For a moment I was back there in a similar hospital bed, encased in plaster, unable to move, paralyzed from the neck down."
Sixty years ago this week, German shrapnel or machine-gun fire ripped through Dole's right shoulder as the young Army second lieutenant desperately tried to drag one of his men out of the line of fire in the mountains of northern Italy. The fragments ripped apart his shoulder, broke his collarbone and right arm, smashed down into his vertebrae and damaged his spinal cord.
That incident, in the waning days of World War II, left Dole's strapping, athletic body irreparably shattered. It would take years of surgery and therapy -- and enormous willpower -- before Dole could pull his life together and launch a political career that took him to the pinnacle of leadership in the Senate and now a premier lobbying job in Washington. Dole's war story is a familiar one, and it became an important motif of the Kansas Republican's failed presidential campaign in 1996 when Dole tried to shed a dour, taciturn image.
But as recounted by Dole in his new memoir, "One Soldier's Story," the tale assumes a fresh resonance as the toll of U.S. troops killed or maimed in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to mount. More than 1,700 U.S. troops have been killed and 6,316 wounded so seriously they will never return to duty.
Dole opens his book with a tribute to Spec. Nelson, who died four days after the visit. Dole and his wife, Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), are frequent visitors to Walter Reed -- where Dole himself was hospitalized late last year with internal bleeding caused by a fall after hip replacement surgery. Advocates for disabled veterans say Dole, 81, is an inspiration to many of the wounded soldiers struggling to overcome their disabilities.
Col. James K. Gilman, commander of the Walter Reed Health Care System, says that many of his patients who are amputees quickly bond with Dole. "They clearly recognized him, and they had an appreciation for someone like him. . . . To watch what [Dole] did with his life after being very seriously wounded and given a permanent disability -- it gives them a bond that I don't have with them. It's special."
"In a sense, you can say his story is their story," said David E. Autry, a spokesman for the 1.3 million-member Disabled American Veterans.
Seated yesterday morning in the VIP suite of Alston and Bird LLP, the downtown law and lobbying firm where he works, Dole obligingly whistles a bar from "You'll Never Walk Alone," or at least tries. That is the Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune that Dole says helped him get through the darkest days of his wartime convalescence, the tune he whistled the first time he ventured alone outside his parents' modest house in tiny Russell, Kan., after the war and walked to Dawson's Drugstore to get a chocolate milkshake.
Today, Dole, as usual, looks good and well-tanned. The onetime pitchman for Viagra is meticulously groomed and dressed, with his pinstriped suit pants neatly creased, his tassled loafers polished and his hair newly coiffed.
Dole is sensitive about his appearance and still, after all these years, self-conscious about his deadened right shoulder and his left arm and hand that have limited mobility and utility. He avoids looking at himself in the mirror -- frequently recalling how shocked he was when he first saw himself after being wounded and looking like "a scarecrow in a body cast."
His right arm hangs limp, emaciated and 2 1/2 inches shorter than the other arm, his fingers molded into a ball. For years he has shaken hands with his left hand, which most people have assumed is fine. Actually, he reveals in his book, "I have no more feeling in those fingers today than I did in June 1945 . . . . After shaking hands with a few too many folks, my left hand starts turning black and blue."
Dole launched his book project after he discovered that his two sisters had kept about 300 family letters dating to the mid-'40s, including many that Dole had written as a student at the University of Kansas and during his time in the military.