Camp out remembers World War II sacrifices

Mike Carper of Lewistown cited the aphorism “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” to help explain why he was one of the World War II re-enactors camping out at the Horseshoe Curve Saturday in memory of the soldiers who guarded the key rail passage against the threat of Nazi sabotage.

Left unsaid was the potential for future re-enactors dressing up and playing soldier in memory of Carper and others with whom he served in a much more distant – and ultimately more dangerous – location.

Carper was deployed twice during the recent Iraq War, in 2005 and 2006 and again in 2009, and during the first deployment, in Ramadi, as a rifleman, his unit was in combat “almost every time out,” he said.

“Lots of guys were wounded,” he said – though none were killed.

World War II servicemen – those in the field overseas – had it worse in many respects, as they lived for stretches in foxholes, ate canned meat and went for long periods without showers, he said.

But at least they were fighting an enemy that was recognizable in their uniforms, he said.

In Iraq, it was different.

There, the person in civilian dress you might have seen 20 times might be the one shooting at you the 21st time you encountered him.

Worse yet, he might be the one planting the improvised explosive device that rocks your vehicle.

Service members in both conflicts, however, shared the mental anguish war can inflict – though they called it by different names, Carper said.

In World War II, it was “battle fatigue.”

In recent wars, it’s “post-traumatic stress syndrome.”

In World War II, the military dealt with it by telling soldiers to forget about it, a practice that led to self-medication with alcohol for many and the ensuing misery that caused, said Jared Frederick, a Penn State Altoona history instructor who was in charge of organizing the weekend encampment.

Nowadays, the military is more enlightened, and tries to treat it.

Fortunately, Carper, who left the service in January, doesn’t suffer from it.

It probably helped that any shooting at the enemy he did was at a distance – not face-to-face, he said.

The closest he came was a nightmare after returning home, in which he and fellow soldiers captured a fighter trying to bury an IED.

As they put the fighter in their vehicle, the fighter detonated an explosive vest they hadn’t noticed.

“Then I woke up,” he said.

He was shaken and immediately called a buddy who’d served with him in Iraq.

“Mike,” the buddy said, “We would have shot that f— before that.”

“Oh yeah,” Carper thought. “That’s true.”

And that reassured him enough that nothing about his service has troubled him like that again.

His combat training may have helped, Carper said.

Citing the book “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society,” he said studies found that only 10 percent of soldiers in the Civil War shot to kill.

More realistic training – involving human-shaped targets – have raised that percentage by degrees with each successive war to around 90 percent for American service members in recent times, he said.

His training was steeped in realism.

Still, it’s World War II that holds the fascination for him.

“The scale,” he said. “So many millions of people – including the home front.”

The war permeated every aspect of life in the U.S., especially with rationing and other restrictions.

You couldn’t buy gasoline without a ration card.

You couldn’t buy new tires, he said.

There was a universal 35 mph speed limit, to conserve fuel.

He began re-enacting at age 12, when a neighbor friend got him interested in the Civil War.

He began World War II re-enactments at age 15, when he saw a Lewistown Sentinel article about it.

His mom helped him get started.

Now, he’s 29, and having done his own stint in the wars, he’s back at it, after an invitation from The Furious Fourth – World War II Living History Group, which valued his military experience and made him group leader.

“So much fun,” Carper said of the encampment.