Silver Star Eugene Curnow
Iwo Jima veteran’s book a page turner
A Good Life Thanks to the GI Bill
After a year and 62,000 miles on the Pacific, Curnow returned home to Olinda, California. He spent his days with Rex, who was supposed to have been part of the Battle of the Bulge but landed in the hospital for six weeks with pneumonia and couldn’t go. Rex wound up being sent to Greenland to help with refueling airplanes and returned home at the same time as Gene. The two started drinking, and Gene says they stayed drunk for the next month. “I didn’t like the taste of it. I just liked the feeling it gave me,” he said.
He almost married his childhood sweetheart, but “my brain said ‘you’ve got to go to school and get a degree instead of getting married and having babies.’ The only way to get out of poverty was education,” he said. “We were so poor. Then World War II came along and Roosevelt got the GI Bill for us, so (after four years of service) I had five years of education coming.”
He went back to college and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and, later, a master’s in biological sciences and a medical degree in veterinary sciences. “Good old Roosevelt!” he exclaimed. He also attended community college from 1988 to 2002 and studied advanced writing.
He didn’t talk about his war experiences with anyone—not even Rex—for nearly 60 years, preferring to put it in the back of his mind. He married Glenora in 1948, got his various degrees, and went into veterinary practice, a field he worked in for 51 years. At age 45, he pioneered the concept of mobile veterinary clinics, patterning it after human hospitals that used large motor homes for mobile practice. It earned him an article in National Geographic World magazine in January 1985. “After that appeared, we got letters from all over the world,” he said. Other veterinarians wanted to learn how to do the same thing. His wife convinced him to stop answering letters and to write a booklet about it. He wrote a 25-page “how-to” monograph, which he sold for $40—selling more than 6,000 copies. Things were going very well.
But memories have a funny way of returning. “All of a sudden, after around 60 years, I was laying in bed and it’s four or five in the morning, when I became so terrorized I didn’t know where I was,” he said. “I was having a dream that I was next to be killed. I was throwing my legs around, yelling, but no words came out that were intelligible. My heart was pounding, and I was sweating. My wife pushed my shoulder, but I was afraid to open both eyes at the same time.” Many more such dreams followed over the months.
He soon realized that even though so many years had passed, he was afflicted with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), not uncommon even after that long. “You internalize and never talk about it. I just couldn’t talk about it,” he said. He went to the Veterans Administration and began taking medication and getting counseling. “I was told you aren’t cured,” he said, “you will only be controlled, and no one will ever know you have it.”
Through the VFW’s Veterans Helping Veterans program, he used his experience to counsel other vets with PTSD. He did this for three years, also helping them obtain money for their disabilities.
Curnow and his wife have two daughters and two grandsons who “make more money than I ever did,” which is okay with him. After all, Curnow has high hopes for the success of Life, the Hard Way: Up from Poverty Flat. If it does well, he says he’ll donate some of the proceeds to guide dog programs for the blind, police dog programs, and Habitat for Humanity.
Published August 19, 2008
Silver Planet Feature Writer