Perhaps war’s enormity, with its unimaginable loss of life, explains why the young Marine’s death still lingers so vividly in Dr. Edward Byrd’s memories of Vietnam.
It’s as if the quiet, handsome teenager represents all of the thousands who died in combat or who lay wounded in the 600 beds aboard a U.S. Navy hospital ship where Byrd served.
The Marine’s name was Dennis Lobbezoo.
The name caught Byrd’s eye in 1968 when a helicopter delivered the wounded soldier to him. It wasn’t a common name, not a Brown or a Smith, and Byrd wondered about its origin.
He figured he’d check later, one day when there wasn’t a war and men arriving burned beyond recognition.
The young soldier and the young doctor talked a bit.
Lobbezoo’s shrapnel injuries weren’t severe. He recovered and rested for several weeks.
Then, he returned to battle. Byrd returned to mending bodies.
Four months later, Byrd stopped at Da Nang, a port city with a major air base used by the Americans and South Vietnamese.
As usual, he picked up the day’s copy of Stars and Stripes, a newspaper that covers the armed forces.
He perused the list of wounded and killed in action. Among about 25 killed, one name stopped him:
PFC Dennis Lee Lobbezoo.
From 1967 to 1968, Byrd treated soldiers aboard a hospital ship off the Vietnamese coast. They arrived with everything from basic malaria to horrific shrapnel wounds that no surgeon could repair.
By then, he was in his late 20s. He’d grown up a young boy during World War II and then Korea. He thought he knew what war meant.
“In truth, the civilian has no inkling what it means,” the Mount Pleasant resident says.
For one, he never imagined treating young men so burned, every inch of their skin charred to black leather by the time a helicopter rushed them on board.
“There isn’t any recognizable part of this body. Can you imagine? And to see a bunch of them at one time ...”
Others arrived, their bodies riddled with shrapnel that could pierce one man’s helmet and skull yet still have the force to rip onward and strike another.
“To see it, day after day after day, all of these young guys. It was the most ghastly, upsetting thing,” Byrd recalls.
It left a raw place in his sensitivities — a disbelief as he grew as a neurosurgeon, as he became a husband and a father — that one man could do such things to another. And from that raw place, Lobbezoo always smiled up from his old Navy photo.
Over the years, Byrd did some research about the Marine who haunted him.
Lobbezoo died in combat on June 6, 1968. Like many men. Like 14 from his platoon alone in that one ambush. He was killed southeast of Con Thien, a combat base near the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone that saw intense fighting.
Its name means Hill of Angels.
The Michigan native was 19 years, 11 months and two days old when he died.
About 20 years ago, Byrd contacted Lobbezoo’s parents.
“You don’t know me, but I took care of your son before he was killed,” Byrd recalls saying. “He was a fine young man.”
Byrd, now 73 and a retired neurosurgeon, sits in front of a bronze sculpture of Lobbezoo in his living room.
He created it with hands that once healed with scalpels and forceps.
Byrd and his wife, Ellen, moved to Mount Pleasant in 2000 to be near her parents and to enjoy a milder climate after living in Maryland. He also enrolled in the College of Charleston’s art program.
There, he gravitated toward sculpture, a surgeon’s art with its emphasis on fine skills of the hand.
“Going back to college has been like a rebirth to me,” Byrd says. “I like the feel of a thing taking shape in my hands, kind of like in surgery.”
His sculpture professor, Herb Parker, describes how the retired brain surgeon earned two degrees — in art history and studio art — through sheer hard work and a willingness to do the grunt work that fashions a superior artist.
“His art has facility,” Parker says. “He’s very meticulous, very detailed.”
During an assignment to sculpt a human body, Byrd envisioned creating a bronze figure modeled after “The Dying Gaul,” a much-reproduced Hellenistic piece from around 230 B.C.
A dying Celtic warrior depicted in the ancient sculpture lays on one hip, nude on his fallen shield, his sword beside him. Byrd envisioned re-creating the wounded man but with Lobbezoo’s likeness in a Vietnam-era uniform, a canteen on one hip, a gun holstered on the other.
It would honor one particular young man, but also all who lost their lives in Vietnam.
“His experience really informed that piece and the whole futility of a 17-, 18-year-old kid getting thrown into the meat grinder,” Parker says. “He has gone beyond academic study. The conceptual aspect has a visceral connection with the viewer.”
One of many
But why Lobbezoo, of all the servicemen he treated, some of whom also left the hospital ship healed only to get killed in combat?
Byrd ponders this question, considering why the young man’s death can still force tears to his eyes.
Perhaps it was because Lobbezoo left Byrd with a singular name and face to remind him of the unfathomable 47,354 other American combat deaths in Vietnam. Or, perhaps he saw a bit of himself in the young man who, unlike others filled with bravado, was quiet and respectful.
“He handled a very difficult situation gracefully. He was the kind of guy you’d like your own son to be like,” Byrd recalls. “I just never forgot him.”
With Veterans Day approaching Monday, Byrd wants to donate the bronze sculpture to wherever it might best remind people to honor the nation’s other Dennis Lobbezoos.
He’d hoped to donate it to a veterans hospital in the Marine’s hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich. But there is not one.
Instead, Byrd plans to visit one of his sons in nearby Ann Arbor to check out the veterans’ hospital there.
“I did it as kind of an anti-war piece to ask, ‘What is the cost of war?’ This guy never got a chance to marry and have children,” Byrd says. “Multiple that by the thousands.”
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