Ted Drews remembers his war stories all too vividly. The former Marine saw things during World War II that have haunted him for 70 years. Now 90 years old, the Tonawanda resident still recalls burying his dead buddies on the sands of Iwo Jima.
"People don't realize how a battle takes place or how things happen in a war," he said. "They watch it on TV or in the movies. It isn't actually like that."
Born and raised in Buffalo, Drews received his draft notice six months after graduating from Hutchinson-Central High School. As the snow melted in Buffalo in 1944, Drews found himself in basic training with the U.S. Marine Corps., preparing to fight for God and country. As a member of the 3rd Pioneer Battalion, he had the job of distributing supplies and recruits to companies that were shorthanded. Another task was to bury the bodies of those killed during battle.
"One of my jobs, which gave me PTSD, was taking a body from the USS Hope, which was a hospital ship, to the cemetery. That was a trip in itself," he said, recalling the images that have left him with nightmares. "I'll tell you what gave me PTSD - my trip to the cemetery. The bulldozer dug a big trench, then the individual graves were dug and bodies were laid in those individual graves to be covered up later. When I took the bodies from the ship, they were in a bag. You've seen body bags all over," he said, over a phone conversation, never needing to pause to remember. "When I got there, I could look into these open graves. The Marines laying in there were not laying with their arms crossed across their chest like you see in the funeral parlor. Their arms and legs were extended. There were arms and legs missing. There was blood all over. They weren't prepared for burying like they are at home here. When I looked into those graves I could see young faces. I was 19 at the time, and I could see people my age. And I realized I was the last one to see them. Their parents won't see them. Their grandparents, brothers and sisters were not going to see them be buried. I could see the looks on some of their faces that were as young as me. I used to have dreams about it. The blood was unbelievable. I can't stop remembering it periodically."
At one point, after receiving an order to move the troops forward, Drews began to dig foxholes. "But we had to give that up because we were digging up too many Japanese bodies. So, they avoided that part of the system that they wanted to do. I never did get up to the front lines, which was lucky. That's why I'm here today.
"War is not like the movies, believe me. Oh God, remembering that is unbelievable. That's something people should see, but they won't. They see the wounded and stuff on the battlefield in the movies, but they don't see the way they're buried - with their arms extended or their legs in the sitting up position the way they died. That's the worst part of war."
The experience left him with nightmares, flashbacks and bouts of depression that put a strain on his wife, Phyllis, and their five children. His symptoms would get worse around February, Ted's birthday. The family thought he was depressed about getting older, until they realized the worst fights of Iwo Jima happened in February 1945.
"He dealt with PTSD for 60 years. Then he finally got help, and he is doing much better now," said Phyllis, Ted's wife of 56 years. "He was having nightmares. He fell out of bed several times fighting the war. It's about 10 years now since we were able to get help through the VA because they finally set up a PTSD clinic in Batavia." She praises the doctor who treated her husband. "When we first went, (the doctor) didn't hold out a lot of hope for him because it had gone on for so many years. He's done very well, and has minimal flashbacks. When we were first married, he kept it all to himself. As he got older, it became more and more difficult for him to deal with it. He suffered from severe depression."
For the past 10 years, Drew has seen a psychiatrist at the Batavia VA Medical Center every three months and is on medication. "It helps," he said.
He also goes twice a week to a VA camp for Adult Day Health Care where he gets occupational therapy. It helps him feel good and he gets to meet people. "I think every veteran should go there. Not just disabled ones," Drews said. "I'm a good customer of the VA. I believe thoroughly in the VA. I don't believe in people who say the VA don't do this and don't do that. You can find out easily, there are people who have an appointment who don't even show up. If the people won't come to their meetings with the doctor and they don't take their medication properly, how can they expect to get better?"
The Drews have two sons who have joined the military, one spending 20 years in the Air Force. Now, the two of them work for the VA, and they have a granddaughter waiting to go to reserve bootcamp in December.
"They're very proud of their country and feel patriotic about it," said Phyllis.
The Drews' have attended St. Joseph-University Parish in Buffalo for 30 years now, where Ted has served as an usher and Phyllis as a trustee. Their grandchildren have been attending the parish school for 20 years.
"When the kids have activities, he always goes. A lot of the kids at the school call him grandpa. On his birthday, he buys ice cream for the whole school. Grandpa treats the kids," Phyllis said. "He dearly loves that church and supports the school."
Long retired from his job as a bridge operating engineer, the former Private First Class Drews plans on marching in the Veterans Day parade around Delaware Park on Nov. 5. He will bring a wheelchair with him, just in case his new knee gives him trouble. He looks back at his two-year hitch in the Marines as service to his country, but he doesn't condone war, saying it just makes people suffer.