By Joe Swickard – Detroit Free Press
Posted : Sunday Jul 3, 2011 17:27:41 EDT
DETROIT — He was somewhere north of the 38th Parallel in Korea, loading wounded soldiers onto a Jeep, when the Red Chinese artillery opened up.
“A round caught us,” recalled Conrad Dowel of Northville, Mich. “I woke up and someone was looking down on me.”
On Monday, Dowel, 79, will receive a Purple Heart and Combat Medic medal he earned nearly 60 years ago but was never awarded.
The medals will be presented before Northville’s Fourth of July parade. The presentation is the result of documenting Dowel’s service record, establishing his sacrifice and eligibility through veteran’s service organizations.
For assistance in obtaining or replacing medals:
• Contact a veteran’s service organization.
• Contact the National Archives: www.archives.gov/veterans.
• For information on veteran services and benefits, call the benefits hotline at 800-827-1000 or go to www.va.gov.
“It’s never too late to say thanks,” said Brig. Gen. Carol Ann Fausone, who was Michigan’s assistant adjutant general of veterans affairs.
Dowel’s journey to this point started in a monastery and wove through Korea, Detroit-area school districts and a new identity.
Korean War still haunts many vets
Blasted and bleeding on the hard-frozen Korean ground, he still resisted being evacuated, Conrad Dowel recalled after nearly 60 years.
“I didn’t want to leave,” he said.
But he was strapped to a stretcher anyway, and airlifted from the fight .
But he never fully left the battlefield. The shocks and shells took their physical and emotional tolls.
Dowel’s back was rebuilt with rods and screws, and his memories are stamped with the buddies he helped and those he couldn’t.
“You never really forget, especially when you have to put your hands into someone’s stomach or comforted a man while he’s dying,” he said.
“Korea was never really digested,” said Monika Ardelt, a University of Florida sociologist who coauthored work in a 60-year Harvard study of veterans. “In World War II, the whole nation was involved and behind it. I don’t think that was so with Korea.”
Dowel said the war left him “a pretty bitter guy.”
With the action ending in an exhausted stalemate after hundreds of thousands of deaths, “nothing was ever resolved,” Dowel said.
The war and its aftermath tested Conrad Podolski’s journey of faith, healing and hope to become Dr. Conrad Dowel.
Conrad Podolski enlisted in the Army during the Korean Conflict after a friend was killed in the service. He found himself routed to medic training.
As a combat medic, he was in the midst of the action, trying to save lives of horribly wounded buddies and giving solace to those who weren’t going to make it.
The experience was emotionally and physically brutal, he said.
“It was so cold,” he said. “In 20 minutes, a wound would get frozen.”
From the war to the classroom
Discharged in 1954, Podolski went to school on the GI Bill, aiming for a medical career. He didn’t make it into medical school and, with grants and loans, he went for clinical psychology, eventually earning a doctorate.
Along the way, he taught special-education students . Because his students often stumbled over pronouncing Podolski, he shortened his name to Dowel. “It was easier for the kids,” he said.
Leaving teaching, he set up a private practice in child psychotherapy.
Although it is more widely known that veterans of Vietnam and now Iraq and Afghanistan can suffer from post-traumatic stress, older veterans are not immune, said Frank Ochberg, clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University.
Many veterans go through survivor’s guilt: Why and how did they make it through when others weren’t as lucky in the lethal lottery of combat?
Lynn Neely, a geriatric psychologist at the John Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit, said that treatment teams assess everyone who comes in so there is a good opportunity for the veterans to speak up.
“For the first time, a lot of them are talking,” she said. “Now is a time where they can reflect upon their lives and experiences.”
Ochberg and Neely agree that family members, especially wives, can help in recognizing veterans’ difficulties. A wife, for example, may mention that the couple has slept in separate rooms for years because of nightmares or tremors.
Dowel had the disturbing recollections, but he did not have his military decorations.
Using the records and memorabilia he kept, Dowel was able to establish his eligibility. He received help accessing his service records from Fausone, now retired from Michigan’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, and Jim Dempsey, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who is a service officer for the Disabled American Veterans at the VA facility in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Veterans must be prepared and persistent in making delayed applications for awards and citations, Dempsey said.
He said that Dowel, whose claim was somewhat complicated by the name change, had his medic’s armband, photograph, letters written from the Tokyo hospital bed where he was treated and other documents to back up his request.
“We’ve got to help our veterans and say, ‘Thank you,'” Fausone said. “It’s never too late to contact the VA or Defense Department or a veteran’s service organization for help with medals.”
Dowel said he is glad to be getting the medals after all these years, but says he is not special: “I was a plain GI.”