Veterans Day bittersweet for man who served in Bosnia
Benjamin Tatrow is proud of his military service and this Sunday he’ll be celebrating Veterans Day by remembering friends who gave the ultimate sacrifice and reminiscing about his own experience in the Army. And he admits, those memories will be bittersweet.
Even at a young age, Benjamin knew he wanted to join the military, in fact make a career of it. He can remember with distinct clarity when that was. “I was watching the invasion of Iraq when I was in about seventh grade and tears were rolling down my face,” he said. “I believed what we were doing was for the greater good and I wanted to be part of that, but I also knew what we were sacrificing. That made me sad.”
Benjamin’s dream was to become a military police officer. “My mom never let us play with guns when we were kids and so naturally, I wanted to play with guns,” he laughed. “I always told myself that when I grow up, I’m going to become a police officer so I can have a gun.”
Ben wasn’t very far into his adulthood when he joined the Army. In fact, he was at the end of his junior year at Rhinelander High School when he enlisted. “I was enthusiastic about it,” he said. “I come from a line of people in my family who have fought in wars. My great-grandfather was a dough boy in WWI and received two Purple Hearts. My grandfather fought in WWII on a submarine.”
After graduating, Ben was shipped to Fort McPherson in Atlanta, Ga., to train. “Some of my favorite memories are of my times at Fort McPherson,” he said. “I learned all there was to know about being a military police officer. My main duty was patrolling the base and being a guard. Sometimes for 12 hours a shift I would stand at the gate waving cars in, depending on the color sticker that was on their windshield. I also learned how to be politically correct.”
Then in 1995, the war in Bosnia started heating up and American forces were dispatched to that area. This war was the result of the breakup of Yugoslavia following the Slovian and Croatian secessions from the socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991. This part of the world was inhabited by Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbians and Catholic Croatians. It was principally a territorial conflict, initially between the Serb forces on one side, and the Bosniaks, and the Croat forces on the other.
Ben and his fellow soldiers flew from Germany to Hungary to stage for entering Bosnia. They were part of the 18th Military Police Brigade 212 Dragoons. “We were shipped there in C130 Hercules planes,” he said. “I can remember when we landed. It was in December of 1995 and I have never been colder.”
The job of these forces was basically to keep the warring armies separated. Ben found himself riding around on top of an MV, with an automatic machine gun at the ready. He and his fellow soldiers drove around the bombed out countryside making sure there were no land mines or snipers. “Basically, what was left was children and old people,” he said. “We met the kids first. They would trade anything for food.”
But this particular Army had a hard enough time feeding itself. When they landed in Bosnia, no provisions had been sent ahead for the soldiers. “We lived in tents with no running water for a year,” he said. “We also had to eat MRE’s (Meals, ready to eat) that entire time. It was pretty bad.”
There were other aspects of this tour that also troubled Ben. “We couldn’t get decent equipment,” he said. “I had to use duct tape to hold my gun together. Our military vehicles also were not very heavy duty. And it was really hard getting parts when they broke down.”
It was while Benjamin was fighting in Bosnia that he started thinking about the purpose of the war. “We were told we were going in to help these people, many who had been displaced, raped and mass murdered and then buried in ditches,” he said. “We were there to patrol the Zone of Separation and I thought we were there to help the Bosnian people. But things are never cut and dry when you fight a war.”
After three years, Ben returned to the United States and he was broken spiritually, questioning why he had joined the military, but still proud to be an American. Then the Army ordered all military personnel who had been to Bosnia to receive a mandatory anthrax vaccine. And that was when things really started going downhill for Ben. “I would wake up and could hardly move,” he said. “I felt like I had the weight of the world on me.”
Ben fought these puzzling symptoms with all he had, but it soon became clear that his body was slowly deteriorating. “I wanted to keep fit, so one day I was running and my knee just gave out,” he said. “I had to have several surgeries to fix it.”
Then his shoulders started to hurt and worse yet his muscles, then his nerves, started degenerating. Ben has had several complex and painful procedures to try to fix his right shoulder over the years. “It’s all been experimental,” he said. “I go to one doctor and they say we’ll do this and that, but it doesn’t work. Then they go in and do another procedure. I’ve even had an orthopedics thesis paper written about one operation I had. No one seems to know how to fix what is going on with my body.”
And then with all these worries, the Army decided none of this was related to the military and would not pay for any of the doctor visits, operations or medications. “I was too sick to work, so I couldn’t get insurance that way,” said Benjamin. “And there was no money from the military to help with any of this, either.”
For nine years, this veteran fought for his own sanity harder than he ever did in Bosnia with bullets and tanks. He and his wife divorced, he lost his home, and his family was at their wits’ end on how to help. “I admit to putting my family through a lot,” he said. “But you can only be angry for so long. After a while I just got sick of it. It just eats you up inside.”
Today, it’s apparent that Ben still suffers physically. But he has come through his continuing ordeal with a renewed sense of self. Although he is disabled, he has turned to his creative side to endure his physical and emotional pain. He is an excellent photographer and artist, and enjoys writing. He also remarried and he and his wife Sanna now have a son, Jax. Ben also has two other sons, Jimmy, 17, and Tristian, 14, who live close by and visit often.
And despite all his suffering, he is a proud veteran. This Sunday he will spend the day with family and friends celebrating little Jax’s third birthday, but he’ll have other thoughts on his mind as well. “I’ve gone through a lot and I know there is probably more to come,” he said. “But all that has taught me that I can be a positive force for people I know and care about. And I also realize that to fight for your country is a person’s responsibility, part of being American, and that does make me very proud.”