Bob Dole has spent half a century in the public eye, as a Republican Congressman, Senator, Presidential candidate, and advocate for military veterans and the disabled. Now he has published a best selling memoir focusing on the years that shaped both his character and the causes he has championed. In One Soldier's Story, Mr. Dole recalls his youth growing up in the rural Midwest, and the World War II injury that changed his life.
On April 14, 1945, Bob Dole suffered near-fatal wounds while serving with the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division in Italy. A German shell blast damaged his spinal cord and mangled his shoulder, leaving the 21-year old platoon leader almost paralyzed. Mr. Dole spent the next 3 years in and out of hospitals, undergoing 9 operations and grueling physical therapy. He lost a kidney, the use of his right arm and most of the feeling in his left arm.
He decided to tell the story of that time after discovering that his sister had saved what he calls "a treasure trove" of memories. "Two years ago we discovered she had kept about 300 letters," Mr. Dole recalled at a recent bookstore appearance in suburban Washington, D.C.
He said the collection included letters "that I had written to my parents right before going into the service and during my time in the service, letters that people had written for me when I couldn't write, letters to my sisters, letters my mother had written, in fact the letter she wrote the day I was wounded, not knowing I had been wounded. To go back and read those is really something."
Many of the letters are reprinted in One Soldier's Story. The book traces a journey that began in the tiny town of Russell, Kansas, where Bob Dole was raised. He grew up hard working and athletic, with dreams of becoming a doctor. He described Russell as a close-knit community. "There were 99 people in my graduating class, so it was a small town," he recalled. "When I was wounded, the people of Russell raised about $1,800 to pay for the hospital because I didn't have any money. My parents didn't have the money. That's the kind of place it is, where people are very generous and compassionate."
His hometown was one of many sources of support on which Mr. Dole relied during his ordeal. At first he was unable even to walk or feed himself. He went through periods of depression and self-pity, and agonized over how things might have turned out differently, had President Franklin Roosevelt not died on April 12, 1945. "That was going to be the day we did our push," says Mr. Dole. "We had to postpone it for two days. We were all devastated by his death. Maybe if we'd done it on the 12th I wouldn't have been involved. You dream up all these different things."
But one of Bob Dole's doctors helped give him a new perspective on his future. "He told me in effect one day to grow up and get on with my life," said the former Senator, calling it the best advice he ever received. "I was looking for some doctor who would say, 'I could put you back the way you were before this happened.' And he made me realize it wasn't going to happen, and I had to make the most of what I had left. I don't have good feeling in my left hand, so I can't button my shirts, but I have a buttonhook. I have trouble with tuxedoes, thank goodness, so I have a good excuse for not wearing them, but otherwise I've been pretty independent."
Bob Dole arrived in Washington as a freshman Congressman in 1961, and later served 27 years in the Senate. He ran as his party's candidate for Vice President in 1976, and for President in 1996. He became both an icon of the Republican Party, and a man who prided himself on having friends and colleagues from both sides of the political fence.
"It's changed a lot," he noted, suggesting there's less emphasis on compromise in Congress today. "It's easy to criticize when you're not there," he said, "but with the Congress so closely divided I think it tends to encourage this strong confrontation all the time. I've found that most things that are really good for America are bipartisan."
Mr. Dole's World War II experiences have continued to guide his work as a legislator and public advocate. In 1983, he launched the Foundation for Employment of People with Disabilities, and more recently served as chairman of the National World War II Memorial.
Bob Dole dedicates his new book to several people touched by war, including Sergeant Craig Nelson, who died as a result of injuries he suffered in Iraq. Mr. Dole was recovering from surgery himself when he met the young soldier at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. "Here's a husky, good looking, bright young 19 year old, flat in the bed, couldn't utter a word," recalls Mr. Dole. "And four or five days later he passed away. We want to have a living memorial for Craig, so there is a scholarship fund. So what do I think of war? I think it's terrible. I think it's devastating. Sometimes it's necessary if our national interests are threatened."
Bob Dole spoke to a packed room when he made his recent bookstore appearance in suburban Washington. The audience ranged from schoolchildren to aging military veterans, and included admirers from both political parties. John Zawora, of Fredericksburg, Virginia was among them. "We're actually a Democratic family," said Mr. Zawora, "but Bob Dole is one of those unique people, the kind of leader we need more of in this country. He talks about compromise. He knows how to work with people, get things done, with a sense of humor and real values. I think he's a genuine individual, which is why we came."
John Zawora bought 4 copies of One Soldier's Story, including one for his daughter, who has been part of the Iraq War effort. Sixty years separate her service from Bob Dole's, but Mr. Zawora said he believed the former Senator's story of struggle and recovery still speaks to young soldiers today.