RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
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Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Walter Cronkite - all received France's highest award, the Legion of Honor. Last June the honor was bestowed on some American World War II veterans who helped liberate France.
Unidentified Man #1: On this 63rd anniversary of the D-Day invasion, we honor those individuals who stood watch every moment of every day, throughout their call to the war.
(Soundbite of applause)
MONTAGNE: Among the 32 veterans, and the only woman at the ceremony, was a combat nurse who attended the critically wounded from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge and into the Rhineland.
This week, as public television airs its documentary series about World War II, NPR is also telling stories of those who fought in that war. Today, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg profiles Lieutenant Katherine Nolan.
Unidentified Man #2: Katherine Nolan, Army Nurse Corps, 53rd Field Hospital.
(Soundbite of applause)
SUSAN STAMBERG: Under drizzly skies in Naples, Florida, Kate Nolan, age 86 and still able to wear her Army nurse jacket with the brass buttons, Kate Nolan stands with quiet pride.
Mr. PHLIPPE VINOGRADOFF (French Consul General): Madam Katherine Nolan, (French spoken)
STAMBERG: The French Consul General in Miami came over especially for the occasion.
Mr. VINOGRADOFF: (French spoken)
(Soundbite of applause)
STAMBERG: Kate Nolan went to war when she was just 22. Landing on Utah beach a month after D-Day, she traveled with the troops, setting up medical tents five miles from the front. Kate saw the worst of the wounded.
Lieutenant KATHERINE NOLAN (Nurse): Nobody came to those field hospitals except the ones who were critical and could not be transported. You have to get to them and start treating them for shock and stabilize them within an hour. We had to get them in that golden hour.
STAMBERG: Golden but blood-soaked - desperate, deliberate work performed with intense dedication by harried young combat nurses armed with little more than guts, stamina and Army helmets.
Lt. NOLAN: We wore them. We washed in them. When we were sick, we threw up in them.
STAMBERG: And if you were lucky, it saved your life too.
Lt. NOLAN: Mm-hmm. Right.
STAMBERG: There's a photograph taken in France in 1944 of Kate in her Army fatigues, grinning over a water-filled helmet, soaping her hair - a young girl in the middle of a war. Kate earned five battle stars during World War II, and now, so many years later, the French Legion of Honor. The night before that ceremony, Kate Nolan received what was for her an even greater reward.
Lt. NOLAN: Oh. Oh, I don't believe it. Oh. Oh, my god.
STAMBERG: Her youngest son, Steve - Major Steve Nolan - came home from Afghanistan.
Major STEVE NOLAN (Chief of Combat Stress): How are you?
STAMBERG: It took some doing for Steve to get to Florida in time. He'd been embedded with the U.S. Army in Eastern Afghanistan. His assignment: chief of combat stress. Like his mother, Steve move from one medical facility to another, counseling soldiers in the back rooms of medical aid stations. When we reached him in the field by phone, the 55-year-old major said his Afghan war experience gave him even greater respect for his mother's wartime years.
Maj. NOLAN: And I can't imagine how she handled the maturity level and the stress level. It just blows me away. I mean, I've always admired my mother, but I have much more admiration now because, you know, I'm an old fart, you know? I have a little bit of maturity on me. And it's easier to handle trauma and stress, but now I see her as just a kid because that's what I call my soldiers here. I call them a bunch of kids. Of course, they're not. They're young men, but to me they're kids.
STAMBERG: Major Nolan wrote a poem about those kids. He calls it "Old Farts in a Young War." He writes: All in all, they're glad they've young and think it just a nightmare to be atop or, God forbid, over the proverbial hill. Youth always thinks it has the upper hand because they're toned and firm; and we are, for the most part, soft and pudgy.
STAMBERG: Steve Nolan ends his poem this way.
Maj. NOLAN: But it is always an advantage being old because, you see, we already had our chance to be their age. But they will only get to be ours if they're lucky.
Lt. NOLAN: I don't believe it. I think I'm dreaming.
Maj. NOLAN: It's good to be home
STAMBERG: Now, after months of separation and surrounded by her family, including two other sons - both Vietnam veterans - Major Steve Nolan and his mother, Lieutenant Kate, can catch up.
Maj. NOLAN: I thought of you often during the different operations.
Lt. NOLAN: Well, I thought of you all the time.
Maj. NOLAN: Well, once I was on the phone with you and a Medivac helicopter came in.
Lt. NOLAN: Yeah.
Maj. NOLAN: Yeah. And she could here the chopper blades and everything. And she says, geez, I feel like I'm there. And then I said, things are getting a bit crowded here, as they brought the wounded in.
Lt. NOLAN: And he said he was shaking. And I said, he's in shock. He needs plasma. And about two seconds he said here comes the plasma.
Maj. NOLAN: She called the shot first.
STAMBERG: Kate Nolan still has her nursing instincts and the bravery that saw her through those years of battle.
Maj. NOLAN: When I was saying goodbye to my mother, the thing she said to me was, I wish I was going with you.
Lt. NOLAN: Yeah, I remember saying that. And that's the way I felt, of course ignoring the fact that I'm 86 years old. I wouldn't be that much help. But you know, in my mind I was back in my youth, I guess, and thinking I could help.
I was aware of the danger, but you know, that's part of it. Somebody has to do it.
STAMBERG: An attitude like this explains why Kate's has been called the Greatest Generation - her sense of duty and service. She admires her son helping soldiers cope in the Afghan war zone.
Lt. NOLAN: In World War II there were no personnel trained to deal with stress. They called it battle fatigue or shell shock.
STAMBERG: Today, it's called post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. Steve Nolan says the labels may have been different, but the trauma was the same.
Maj. NOLAN: By World War II, you had 24 percent - almost one in four was a psychiatric casualty. Most people don't realize that.
STAMBERG: And it turns out that Kate Nolan, too, began to experience psychological problems years after her military service had ended. In 2001, she went back to Utah Beach in France. It was a wonderful visit. Then she was engulfed by terrible wartime memories.
Lt. NOLAN: Well, it surprised me because although I had nightmares when I first came back or maybe the first year or so, but when my son took me back to Normandy - I'm not blaming you.
Maj. NOLAN: No, I know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Lt. NOLAN: I wanted to go. But immediately, you know, I started having flashbacks - after walking on the beach, because I was picturing what was going on when I hit that beach. And just everything came back - flashbacks, nightmares. I still don't sleep more than three or four hours a night.
STAMBERG: Kate was diagnosed with PTSD. She's joined a support group - again, she's the only woman - with veterans from World War II, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. It helps, she says, as does the honor bestowed on her in June by the government of France.
(Soundbite of music)
STAMBERG: At that D-Day anniversary ceremony, Kate Nolan stood in her old uniform wearing her Legion of Honor medal, a five-pointed white enamel star on a bed of laurel and oak leaves suspended from a red silk ribbon, surrounded by her six children and several grandchildren; her husband James, also a World War II veteran died two years ago. With her characteristic understatement and clear-headedness, the 86-year-old former combat nurse assessed the situation.
Lt. NOLAN: This is a very lucky family. I got two older boys back from Vietnam - both in combat - and now you're back. That's pretty good.
STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: We had help with our story from member station WGCU in Fort Myers, Florida. You can see photos of the Legion of Honor Ceremony and read some of Major Steve Nolan's poems at npr.org.
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