Decorated veteran shares harrowing story of war, death, personal struggles
Polk County Enterprise - November 2007
Raises voice of concern for young veterans seeking adequate medical care after serving
LIVINGSTON – Meeting Robert Parrott you are quickly aware that the spry 80-year-old has not had an easy life. This decorated member of the Greatest Generation began his military service in World War II and continued into Korea. Today this Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient has to buy medication from the Veteran’s Administration Hospital because his part-time job and Social Security pension put him over the newly established income threshold.
Parrott first went to work in the cotton fields in Polk County as a young child. After his father died, he went to work full-time in the Houston shipyards at 15 and enlisted in the Navy at 17. He was guarding German prisoners of war in Virginia before his 18th birthday.
Mr. Parrott came to the Enterprise this week asking for his story to be told – even very private details of his life – because he does not want today’s military personnel to face the same demons he has fought for more than 60 years. This is a condensed, rapid fire account of his war experiences and his attempts to adjust to civilian life afterward.
His military record seems to indicate a model soldier who endured some of the toughest assignments the service has to offer, but he never got to enjoy a peaceful civilian life after he returned from combat.
During Parrott’s first hitch in the military he moved from guard duty to Norfolk, Va. where he went aboard the U.S.S. Norton Sound, a ship assigned to tend seaplanes.
When he received his Navy discharge, Parrott returned to Goodrich. His mother remarried when he was 17 and moved back to Polk County. That remarriage had prompted Parrott to seek the early enlistment and his mother granted permission.
Recruiters in Livingston offered Parrott a promotion to “buck sergeant” to enlist in the Army and he was sent to Fort Ord, Calif. and later Staten Island, N.Y.
Sgt. Parrott was assigned to the honor guard for fallen soldiers returning from World War II.
Next, he served on mine collector ships out of Rhode Island and the Panama Canal before they assigned him to the military police.
While competing with the Army Boxing team, Parrott was injured and spent six months in the hospital at Fort Sam Houston recovering from a head injury. He was offered a discharge at that time, but Parrott said he was afraid to leave the military because it had become his family and, despite all the hardships, the military lifestyle had offered him a sense of security. He opted to continue serving.
Parrott’s next assignment sent him to Fort Polk, La. to prepare for deployment to Korea.
His unit was deployed on the 38th Parallel where troops faced enemy fire by day and propaganda speeches from a sultry-voiced woman at night that urged American soldiers to join the enemy.
After about three weeks just a few feet from North Korea, Parrott said he was so scared he didn’t know what to do. He began running up and down in the trench where his unit was stationed.
“The sergeant grabbed me and slapped me to bring me back to my senses,” Parrott said.
“He told me if I didn’t get down I would get killed and my whole life flashed before my eyes in a matter of minutes.”
Parrott’s eight-man squad was ordered to go over a hill that was being heavily shelled.
“We were looking for a place to hide and we ran into a shelled-out bunker. As we ran in an invisible hand reached out and grabbed me and threw me to the ground. A round came in and killed them all,” Parrott said.
After that incident, Parrott received another promotion.
Parrott said soon after he sat on a hill watching three North Koreans for three days before he killed them.
“I blew the hell out of them,” he said.
During numerous discussions with psychiatrists at Veteran’s Administration hospitals, Parrott said doctors always ask how he felt about killing.
“When I killed the first one, I cried. After that I didn’t give a damn.”
During this intense action in Korea, Parrott said his unit only got one hot meal a day.
One day, just before they got their one respite from hunger, Parrott said he heard a soldier hollering for help.
“When I got to him, he died in my arms,” Parrott said.
After 16 months in Korea, the Army sent him back to the states.
He arrived in Camp Carson, Colo. for mountain training, his first of several assignments in elite fighting troops.
He also served with the 82nd Airborne and the 101st Airborne divisions.
He was awarded the Combat Infantry Badge for his service in Korea, and the Paratrooper’s Badge for his 14 jumps with Airborne troops.
He received the Bronze Star for coming to the aid of a dying fellow soldier. During that rescue attempt, Parrott was wounded in the ankle and he received a Purple Heart.
This physical battle scar is still apparent when Parrott raises his pants leg to show a chunk missing from his lower leg.
Parrott also received three battle stars, the Korean War Service Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, a Good Conduct Medal, the Republic of Korea War Service Medal – a total of 16 ribbons and military decorations.
“I fought for the freedom we have today and I served God and my country. I’m proud I served in the U.S. Service,” Parrott said.
Fast forward a half-century and Parrott says when he seeks health care at the VA he has to pay for prescriptions and some other services.
“I don’t care about me, but we’ve got a lot of younger soldiers coming back and we’ve got problems taking care of them,” Parrott added.
Parrott readily admits to suffering for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for several decades, but has decided not to participate in the group counseling sessions for the condition at the VA.
He matter of factly reviews a sheath of medical records from the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center then describe his ordeal and how he tried to compensate after returning to civilian life.
He wants to share those details to educate others on what life after combat is like.
Since his discharge, Parrott said memories of his war experiences overwhelm at times whether he is awake or asleep.
He has suffered delusions that everyone around him is the enemy. He describes one episode during a visit with his mother when she turned into a Korean before his eyes and other family members were able to intervene just before he hurt her.
He avoids crowds of people, but enjoys his current job at a grocery store in Houston.
“I can’t stand doing nothing and I love talking to children,” Parrott said.
When he leaves work, he prefers to be alone.
These encounters with the younger generation seem to be the one social contact that Parrott feels he can participate in without fear of triggering his PTSD symptoms.
He’s been married five times and has children all over the world, but does not keep in touch with any family members.
“I don’t care for none of them,” he said.
Parrott’s medical records show he self-medicated with alcohol for many years after he returned from combat. He found that violent outbursts decreased sharply when he quit drinking.
He was hospitalized a number of times by VA psychiatrists, but being “in a cage” did nothing to ease the mental anguish.
“They will give you enough medicine to make you a zombie, but I can’t stand that,” he said.
Current medical reports show Parrot poses no danger to himself or others. He’s developed his own methods of compensating and adjusted his medications to allow him to continue to be active, but keep the worst of the symptoms at bay.
The nightmares Parrott still has about his Korean war experiences cause him to awaken angry and agitated, his medical records show.
He takes daily medication for heart and blood pressure trouble and had a coronary bypass many years ago. He pays for those medicines out of his income from Social Security and his grocery store job. VA doctors have also prescribed sleeping pills to ensure he can get sufficient rest and abate the nightmares.
Parrott’s current mission is to ensure that Americans don’t forget about the hardships that Korean War veterans suffered and to fight for younger veterans to receive adequate medical care.