You are free to choose,
but the choices you make today will determine what you will have, be,
and do in the tomorrow of your life.
Almost two months later…
Heathrow, England, Stonebridge US Army Base,
Medical Facility, Psychiatric Ward, Wardroom C,
June 1, 1945, 11:30 Hours
“The Doctors here tell me I made the right choices Ken,” Jeff Malone told his friend.
“And you believe them?” Ken countered accusingly.
“They say I have to believe Ken… if I’m to get better.”
“They’re all lying to you Jeff, every single one of them. Face it. What happened… was your fault. You know I’d never lie to you. Don’t you?”
“Yes, of course Ken. It’s just…”
“It’s just what? Admit it Jeff. Two-hundred and twenty-six of our guys died because of the choices you made. If we had only stayed put at Stalag Five…”
“More men would have died Ken. The Doctors told me that the retreating German Army ran havoc over Stalag Five before any Allied Forces reached it. If we had stayed, we would probably all be dead.”
“I don’t understand you anymore Jeff. After all the time we spent together… and now you’re taking their word over mine. They weren’t even there. I was. If we had stayed, we could have at least died fighting. I bet next… you’re going to tell me that they said stopping our march when and where you did was the right thing to do too. Huh?”
“Come on Ken, why are you doing this to me? The Doctors told me that if we continued on, it could have taken the Allies forever to find us, especially with us spread out like we were on the road. Many more could have died Ken. They said that the only reason they found us when they did, was because we stuck together in that open pasture and then, only because, our flyboys spotted those homemade Red Cross flags we had with us.”
“Sure. Keep clinging to their lies Jeff. I bet they also assured you that it wasn’t your fault that the only water source we found in the area was contaminated, right? Commanding Officers are supposed to know those things, Jeff.”
“Ken please, you know I didn’t know that. I couldn’t have known that. It was just the best place to stop. After all that time on the move… and with most of the food and water spoiled or gone… no one was doing good Ken. You know that. We had to stop. How could I have known the water was contaminated? It looked, smelled, and tasted fine.”
“You should have known Jeff.”
“Ken, why are you doing this to me?”
“How many of us got sick Jeff? Way too many, remember? Almost half of the 2132 men with us. The survivors were just damn lucky that they were in better health to begin with. Or you’d now have more than the 226 dead men’s souls to atone for. It’s just too bad that you didn’t die along with them Jeff. What gave you the right to survive?”
“The Doctors say I did everything I could Ken. I want to believe them. But I need you to believe what I did was right. Please say you believe that I made the right choices. Please,” Jeff pleaded covering his face with his hands to wipe off the sweat that had begun to bead on his face. When he looked back to where Ken had been standing, he saw no one. “Ken! Please don’t do this to me again. I need you to tell me I made the right choices.”
Malone looked around frantically for his friend. As he got up from the chair he was sitting in, needing desperately to find Ken, the pressure of a strong hand on his shoulder stopped him from moving. “Take it easy Jeff,” Doctor Doug Ellingsworth offered. “Ken’s gone now. I know how hard it is on you when Ken comes by, but you need to put that all behind you. You need to forgive yourself. In war, people die. You made the best choices possible. Remember that.”
Jeff Malone looked deep into his doctor’s eyes, a fog seemingly lifting from his expression. “I understand that in war, people die,” he responded adamantly. “But to die well, as soldiers, I could have accepted. For those men to have died as innocent victims of my bad choices… I will never…” Jeff fell silent, his eyes drifting from Ellingsworth, as the fog seemed to reclaim his spirit. Turning from the doctor, Jeff wandered away, without saying another word.
As his patient left the confines of the small wardroom, Doctor Ellingsworth turned to his new staff psychologist, Mark Townsend. “Jeff’s a tough case, Mark. He was the Senior POW officer at Luft Stalag Five. In just the past two months, he has lost 226 of the men under his command to starvation, malnutrition, dehydration, dysentery, botulism… you name it, and someone died from it. Many of his 2000 men were in a real bad way when they were rescued. It’s just that, as their commanding officer, Jeff can’t get past the guilt he feels about the choices he made.”
“Who’s this Ken that he was talking to?” Dr. Townsend asked.
“I was told that a Ken Stephens was the POWs physician at Stalag Five. He was also a close friend and confidant to Captain Malone for their entire time together at that camp. The people I’ve talked to say that Malone always credited this Ken with keeping him focused during all that time.” Ellingsworth paused and shook his head sadly. “Ken Stephens was one of those men that didn’t make it. Died in the Captain’s arms is what I was told.”
“He has a tough road ahead of him then. If he can’t get this Ken out of his head… he may never recover,” Townsend offered.
“Well. It’s only been a short time since the last of those deaths occurred. I just hope that, given more time, some of those scars will heal,” Ellingsworth offered. “He’s not crazy Mark. Don’t let these conversations with Ken lead you to believe that. Jeff Malone is guilt ridden and hiding from his grief. Deep down, I think he even knows that. Luckily right now, he has the support of a lot of people. Officially, he’s been cleared of any wrongdoing and no one else I’ve talked to is blaming him for any of it. Some of his men still here at Heathrow have even been taking turns visiting him. And Malone does real well when they’re here, to the point that many have asked me why he’s still under my care. What they don’t see… happens after they leave. It’s then that Ken makes his appearances -- and his accusations. And Jeff Malone is back where he started.”
“So are we only to work off the old adage… Time heals all wounds?” Townsend asked glancing down the long corridor to see Jeff Malone disappear into his hospital room.
“For his sake,” Ellingsworth added. “Let’s hope that that is all that’s necessary.”
"Take a day to heal from the lies you've told yourself
and the ones that have been told to you.
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