Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Into War with an Empty Gun: The Story of a Korean Veteran

I had the great pleasure to interview Robert “Bob” Brownbridge. I had first met Bob at a meeting held by the Boise City Police Department concerning the development of a resource manual that would be geared specifically towards helping veterans in any stage of life or circumstance. This resource manual would be a complete set of resources identifying various agencies and individuals throughout the local community that could be readily used by local agencies and law enforcement officers when they came into contact with them.
            Bob was immediately drawn to the fact that I had retired from the military and had started my graduate program in Social Work with the hope to help veterans after graduation. He had received his master’s degree in Social Work from UC Berkeley, where he was the founder and first editor of the Berkley Journal of Social Welfare. Bob lived in the bay area until 2009 and worked for over forty years as a psychotherapist and community organizer. Bob confided in me that since he had moved to Boise he began to see the need for a community outreach program specifically for veterans that would be sponsored by the local religious organizations. He had the idea but did not know how to bring this all together. We soon began to meet regularly speaking about our drive to help others and he has since been a friend and a mentor for me. When I started this assignment I could not think of a better person to write about than Bob Brownbridge.
            Bob Brownbridge was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1930. A small rural town of 60,000 people spread out over various plots of land in which “neighbors would rely on each other for everything” (Brownbridge, 2013). Bob describes the culture as “farm town mid-western values in which hard work, integrity and faith was vital for the survival and social existence of the families” (Brownbridge, 2013). Because his family worked the land he was instilled with work ethic that revolved around hard back breaking work. The emphasis on education was down played because you did not need college to farm. When asked about how the rural world has changed Bob replied that the “small town farmer is gone, but there is still the core beliefs that I was brought up with” (Brownbridge, 2013). One of the biggest changes he has seen over the years is a decline in the value of hard work; instead people now rely on technology.
            Bob described his family as very close and church orientated, but there was an underlying cynicism that began to evolve in front of him. At age eight Bob began to see a hypocritical side of his family and this revelation would foster a desire to leave them and Iowa. He describes his family as secretly critical of outsiders and those who were of different cultures and ethnicities. They would not confront or say prejudicial things in front of others but when it was just the family they would talk about the “blacks and the Jews” as so different they could not be classified as a human. He began to withdraw from his family and started to cultivate his creative talents. He loved to write poetry, read books and paint, but this was frowned upon by his family because as he described it “it was looked at as individuality and in our small town and especially in my family if you were not part of the norm then you were different and different did not survive” (Brownbridge, 2013)
            There were two influential people in his life, the first being his aunt. She was a woman who had been all over the world, who had many boyfriends, and who would tell Bob about the fast paced life of a woman neither committed to anything or anyone. She was candid with him and would tell him of lovers and parties she would attend in places like Paris and Honolulu. He wished that he could just leave with her and get away from Iowa. He likened it to the 1958 movie Auntie Mame “Mame is an unconventional individualist socialite from the roaring 20's. When her brother dies, she is forced to raise her nephew Patrick. However, Patrick's father has designated an executor to his will to protect the boy from absorbing too much of Mame's rather unconventional perspective. Patrick and Mame become devoted to each other in spite of this restriction, and together journey through Patrick's childhood and the great depression, amidst some rather zany adventures.” (Thompson, 2013) He confided that he wished that she could have been his mother. The second person was his grandfather, who Bob was “ordered” by his mother and father to not like. He described his grandfather as good at everything, he was a huge man who had played minor league baseball, was a master craftsman and was known around town as a womanizer. Bob described a man that was not afraid of anything and would not back down from a fight and could drink with boys. Having been told to not like him made Bob like him even more and he began to set his sights as far outside Iowa as he could. At 12 years old he remembers his mother commenting “I just don’t know what happened to Bob, he changed” (Brownbridge, 2013).
            The rift with his family dynamic grew and by age 15 he decided to leave the family church and thus began his self-described “rebellious” stage began. He began hanging out with the boys who were known simply in town as the “bad crowd”. He spent nights drinking, gambling and fighting.
            When Bob turned 17 years his mother tired of being poor and living a meager life off of the $225 per month his father made as a distributer of farm supplies decided to uproot the family and move to Spokane, Washington. His father would get a job with the same company as a salesman, a poor decision that did not last long due to his father being extremely introverted. This forced his mother to work as the primary bread winner of the family and Bob seeing that the family was in need of additional income began to work as well. Bob would continue to work all through his junior and senior year of high school and would even pay for his college tuition at Whitman College. While Bob’s younger years would shape him it was after he moved out of the home and struck his independence that he describes as the “real formative years”.
            Bob first began his secondary education at the University of Washington where he described as “not very successful”. Bob found the temptation of being out on his own for the first time drawn towards parties and drinking on campus. He spent only one semester there and then decided to move to Whitman College which was a smaller school located in Walla Walla Washington a small rural town that seemed a little like Iowa, a place he had looked forward to leaving but a place that now alone provided some comfort. While attending college Bob was active in sports playing basketball for the school and he describes himself as a “great athlete”. During the summers he would work for the Forest Service at Priest Lake, Idaho, located in the northernmost portion of the Idaho Panhandle, 80 miles north of Spokane, Washington. His modest earnings of $1,500 per summer would help pay his tuition at Whitman College. It was here that Bob would learn about the Korean War, the draft, and what life really had in store for him.
            Sitting on a mountain side overlooking Upper Priest Lake his Forest Service Supervisor sat with him at lunch and asked him “did you hear about the war that broke out yesterday in Korea?” (Brownbridge, Into War with an Empty Gun, 2012) Not knowing what or where Korea was Bob was to learn the next day that Congress had reinstated the World War II national draft and would begin to supply soldiers for the new war that was now labeled a “police action” by President Truman. He began to contemplate his future and the grim reality that being drafted was a distinct possibility. What would happen to his goals? What would happen if he was killed or even worse maimed in combat? Would he have to kill someone?
This lead to questioning the validity of the war and why Americans were in a place that did not put any Americans in harm’s way, the thought of running to Canada briefly entered his mind. Growing up in the family he had and the values that his community held that risking one’s life, even dying, was a better way to live with oneself than being forever disgraced as a coward and a draft dodger. So the draft was the only real patriotic option, but if there was a way to beat it, Bob knew he had to find it.
After a failed attempt to get into the U.S. Naval Officer’s Candidate School in New London, Connecticut he found himself in at reception in Fort Lewis, Washington and then off to the Army’s Signal Corps Training School at San Luis Obispo, California. On September 29, Bob began eight weeks of Basic Infantry Training followed by eight more weeks of specialty training in communications. “I found myself to be in excellent physical shape but failed to achieve the Army’s other three objectives; weapons proficiency, military teamwork and adherence and respect for military authority” (Brownbridge, 2013).
No matter how much training on weapons and marksmanship he went through he could not overcome his ineptness at using the weapons, “the M1 rifle, said to be a soldier’s best friend, never befriended me.” (Brownbridge, 2013). Learning to work with others proved to be a very task for Bob because of his resistance to cooperate with others. Killing another person weighed so heavily on his conscience he applied resistance to develop and foster any type of teamwork cohesion, he simply felt “whether working separately or as part of a team I could not bring myself to work with them so I simply practiced passive aggressive methods of personal rebellion” (Brownbridge, 2013).
Respect for military authority was simply drawn from his fear of how authority would be used against him, “I obeyed, but not out of respect” (Brownbridge, 2013).  In one instance Bob had a run in with one of the training sergeants who, during a weapons inspection informed him that his weapon was dirty, after arguing that it was not his weekend pass was revoked and he was given seven days of Kitchen Patrol (KP) with a stern follow on threat that additional punitive actions may be taken to “correct” his insubordinate behavior. After this encounter he learned that it was easier for him to just stay out the sergeant’s way, and found that by not being noticed he quietly excelled, even though he felt poorly prepared and ill equipped to serve in war.

Figure 1 Private Robert Brownbridge, Basic Training Honor Guard January 1953.
            Upon completion of Basic and Specialty training Bob headed home to spend a few weeks with his family before heading to Korea. While at home he spent the obligatory time with his parents but found himself looking for his old girlfriends and the promiscuity that a soldier going to war can hope to engage in. Time would speed by and Bob would give a heartfelt farewell to his parents and silently contemplate whether he would ever see them again as he watched them disappear as the train pulled away from the station.
He embarked on a 21-day trip from Fort Mason on San Francisco Bay and arrived in Yokohama, Japan. The inevitability of war loomed over him and he felt the first pains of loneliness and fear. Bob had turned away from the church as a 15 year old boy in Iowa soon found himself trying to remember those bible passages and he repeats a popular proverb many of us who have seen combat remember “there are no atheists in foxholes”.

Figure 2 Corporal Robert Brownbridge

On July 27, 1953 Bob came out of his tents to the shouts of “The truce is signed, The War is over, we’re going home” (Brownbridge, 2013). Although this news brought joy and celebration to him and the troops around him, Bob was dealing with another problem. A problem that moved slowly and like the enemy he had fought over the years slowly tore at his well being and resolve. He was getting sick.
Not a sickness like a cold but a he knew something was wrong. He would pass out and find himself waking up on the floor of his tent nauseous and tired and he was having almost regular seizures. He went to the medic repeatedly only to be told that it was exhaustion and he just needed to get some rest.  As he was doing his discharge physical the doctor found what he called a “corpus callosum, a body of nerve tissues that lies between your two hemispheres,” he continued “is off center; it’s to the left of where of where it should be” (Brownbridge, Into War with an Empty Gun, 2012) The doctor told Bob that he was going to send him to Tokyo immediately.
Bob went on to describe numerous tests done by the doctors that left him writhing in pain and many times simply passing out because his body and mind would shut down to “save me from simply giving up” (Brownbridge, 2013). Finally there came some results it was found that he had a brain tumor. The doctors were amazed and commended him several times for his work on the front lines of Korea even though he was suffering from physical pain and regular seizures. After surgery Bob told me a story that happened almost ten years after the surgery that would save his life.
While attending college he was sitting in his apartment speaking with a friend and his fiancĂ© abut there upcoming wedding when her ten year old son sat on Bob’s lap. He looked right into his eyes and he could see his gaze travel to the burr on his forehead. “What’s that” he asked. Bob was caught by surprise because nobody had ever been that bold before.
“Well Danny, I was very sick once and the doctors looked inside my head” he said. Danny sat back looked intently and said “Does it hurt?” I responded, “No, it doesn’t Danny. Not anymore” With a satisfied look on his face , the boy declared, “God took good care of you, didn’t he?”
Bob told me his eyes moistened before he could manage to respond, “Yes….Yes, he did, Danny”.
While I could continue to write about Bob’s fascinating story while serving in Korea and his fight and eventual successful win in his fight with cancer for the sake of this post and brevity I will move onto the next section.
Critical Analysis
Religion played various roles in Bob’s life. It was a defining factor in his family dynamic as well as a forceful and visual way for him to show his individuality and rebel. “Humanistic theories provide two foundational concepts for transpersonal theory: self-actualization and self-transcendence” (Robbins, 2012). As a child around 12 years old, Bob began to develop and express his creative side. These actions are seen in the definition of self-actualization which is “a natural inherent tendency of people to express their innate potentials for love, creativity, and spirituality” (Robbins, 2012). The strictness and the harsh environment that he grew up in left him with little means to express his love for the world and those around him. Bob related that the only time he ever hugged his father was when he was leaving for war, that image is still ingrained in his memories. Although he did not receive the conventional nurturing that Maslow describes, Bob was able to find the necessary nurturing from other people around him such as his Aunt who prompted him to have a world view as well as encouraged him to write and paint. At his current stage in life Bob has achieved a transegoic state of understanding that there is a larger purpose for him in the world. This purpose is to help those who have seen war and suffer from the environmental factors that block access to care, stigma associated with care and community acceptance of a systemic problem.
In Erickson’s stages of adult development, Bob has reached the generativity vs. stagnation stage. In the generativity stage the person works on being productive within society and essentially leaving behind a personal legacy. In this stage typically people work within three domains: procreative domain, productive domain and creative domain. In the procreative domain Bob is being a mentor helping students such as myself who are working to get into the field of work that he has been successful at for 40 years. His continued contributions to the community of veterans here in Boise has been relentless are an example of the creative domain. Another example of this domain is his current endeavor to bring together various religious groups in a community outreach program that will provide peer support for veterans suffering from substance abuse and homelessness.
In stage eight of Erickson’s adult development Ego Integrity vs. Despair “despair is signified by a fear of one's own death, as well as the loss of self-sufficiency, and of loved partners and friends” (Davis, 2013). I am confident that from all that Bob has experienced with the war and secondary illness that almost took his life his fear of death is very negligible. During our interview he expressed “content that I have been blessed with a life of accomplishments and experiences that I have been able to walk away from” (Brownbridge, 2013). That does not mean that he does not fear for the death of his wife or family members. I have seen in many combat veterans after they return from war the feeling of contentment that life was not swept away from them and that since they got to come home and some of their buddies did not than living life to fullest carries a new meaning, it is the feeling that to waste your time would be a dishonor to those who did not have the choice whether they got to live theirs.
Levinson’s stages of adult life early adulthood “ranges from about 17 to 45 this is the era of "greatest energy and abundance and greatest contradiction and stress." It is the most productive time of a person's life, during which one carves one's niche in the adult world. The satisfactions can be rich, but the stresses can be "crushing." "We incur heavy financial obligations when our earning power is still relatively low," notes Levinson. Important choices about marriage, family, and work are made before the person necessarily has enough maturity to choose wisely” (Dewey, 2007). During this phase of Bob’s life he had made the decision to move out of the family home and attend college. Although he did not do very well his first year due to “extracurricular” activities he was none the less able to begin to carve his place into society. After seeing that he was not mature enough to handle a big school Bob moved to a smaller school where he was more comfortable. After being drafted into the Army he found himself back into a transitional institution, he was away from his family but he was still under the control of his training sergeant’s and those appointed over him in the platoon. He did not have a dream per se but he did have immediate goals such as graduating from college and entering the work force. This was cut short after he was drafted into the Army and the imminent reality of death removed all hope to achieve any goal he may have set for himself earlier.
In Piaget’s Cognitive Theory age seven to eleven is referred to as the concrete operational phase. This is a phase when “children can use logic, but tend to be literalistic and abstract concepts are not easily understood” (Robbins, 2012). As mentioned before at the age of eight Bob began to see the hypocritical side of his family when behind closed doors. How they would smile at someone then talk behind their backs. Bob was able to use this logic to know that just because someone was black did not make them “not human”. This is because he became less egocentric and better at conservation tasks meaning that he was able to understand that although the appearance of something changes, the thing itself does not.
Fowler’s Theory of Faith Development in stage five states that “critical thinking allows for developing one’s own personal beliefs and practices and the determination of whether one remains in a traditional religious context or not takes place. Another way to view this is “The adolescent also develop interpersonal multi-perspective cognition's and begin to desire a personal relationship with God in which they feel loved in a deep and comprehensive way” (Fowler, 2005). During this time Bob decided to turn away from formal religion and turn away from the rules that had been established by his family and those that were practiced by the members of his community. Not because Bob did not believe in God but because he did not understand the concept behind being a good Christian at church but a gossiper and hypocrite behind doors. Bob stated during our interview his feeling on his decision to leave the church “if you believe in god and have faith you should have it all the time not just when someone is watching you” (Brownbridge, 2013). This belief would eventually evolve to the present where he is an active member of his church community as well as a strong proponent to faith based community services.


Brownbridge, R. (2012). Into War with an Empty Gun. Boise: CreateSpace Publications.
Brownbridge, R. (2013, March 20). (E. Hicks, Interviewer)
Davis, D. (2013, Jan 01). Psychosocial Theory: Erikson. Retrieved from Haverford:
Dewey, R. (2007, Jan 01). Stages of Life. Retrieved from Intropsych:
Fowler, J. &. (2005). Stages of faith from infancy through adolescence: Reflections on three decades of faith development theory. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.
Robbins, S. P. (2012). Contemporary Human Behavior. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education Inc.
Thompson, R. (2013, 04 01). IMDb. Retrieved from IMDb:
Zastrow, C. H. (2010). Understanding Human Behavior and the Social Enviroment. Belmont: Cengage Learning.

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