En español | When he met the injured helicopter pilot in 2004, Bob Levine already had been through enough experiences for several lifetimes. He had been a successful businessman and a military veteran, but the fact that he was around at all involved more than a little luck.
Levine was injured badly in France in World War II, taken prisoner and had his lower leg amputated by a German military doctor. That doctor may have saved his life twice: First with the surgery, and again, Levine believes, by removing the dog tags that would have revealed Levine is Jewish.
On that day 17 years ago, Levine was visiting the pilot as part of a program that put together older injured veterans with ones who were recovering at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He struck up a conversation with the pilot, who had lost both legs and the partial use of her right arm after her helicopter was shot down in Iraq. They talked about the challenges they faced, especially the life adjustments new amputees face.
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That helicopter pilot was U.S. Army Capt. Tammy Duckworth, a member of the Illinois National Guard. What Levine could not have known at the time was that he was talking to a future U.S. senator.
After a year of recovery at Walter Reed, Duckworth became director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, then a U.S. assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs and then a congresswoman, and now is a senator from Illinois. She remained in the reserves until 2014, retiring at the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Levine followed her career along the way, admiring her accomplishments.
"It's just an incredible story,” he said. “Here's a double amputee, and she went through this hell, and then she goes and gets involved in politics, and her work ethic is above and beyond belief."
A wish granted
Levine is 96 now and a recent survivor of COVID-19. With the help of the AARP-affiliated Wish of a Lifetime Foundation, he recently had a wish of his fulfilled: another chance to talk to Duckworth one-on-one.
"It really was an experience to talk to her and have contact with the senator,” Levine said. “When you talk about a wish of a lifetime, that's what it was ... she's a very special person."
The call was private, but Duckworth's office released a statement afterward. “It was a pleasure to reconnect with Mr. Levine today and I was honored to be chosen to be part of the Wish of a Lifetime program,” the senator said in the statement. “I truly appreciate Mr. Levine's service to our nation and it was so moving to learn more about his life and experiences."
"My big concern was the voting problem here in the country and what's happening with people not being able to vote, so we talked about that, and about families,” Levine said of the conversation. “It was wonderful. It was just a great 20 minutes together."
It was also the latest chapter in what has been a remarkable life for Levine, including the harrowing few months that ended his WWII service.
On June 10, 1944, four days after D-Day, Levine's Army battalion landed on Utah Beach in Normandy, France. Raised in the New York City borough of the Bronx, Levine was only 19. The beach had been secured by then, but as the soldiers moved inland in the coming days and weeks, they began to encounter heavy German resistance.
A few weeks later, as the Allies pushed into France, Levine was in a foxhole when a German grenade exploded nearby, injuring him in the thigh.
"I was on the ground, and I looked up, and there was this (German) guy with a gun, and my buddy is over here,” Levine said in a 2017 oral history interview for the U.S. Holocaust Museum. “He got up and started to run. You don't do that, and the Germans turned and shot him, so I put my hands up."
German troops took him prisoner and brought him to a holding area nearby, but he was not out of the battle zone. Levine was further injured the next day after U.S. artillery hit his position.
"When the shell hit, we all went up in the air ... and that's when my leg was shattered,” he said in the oral history interview.
He was brought to a German field hospital in France, where the amputation was performed. He awoke from the surgery without his dog tags, which listed the letter ‘H’ (Hebrew) for his religion. Levine believes they were removed by the doctor who performed the surgery, who had asked about the letter on the tag shortly before Levine lost consciousness.
Levine then was sent to a German POW hospital in Rennes, France, where Allied troops liberated him about two months later.
'A lucky, lucky person'
After he left the Army and returned to the U.S., he went to college and eventually opened three Arby's restaurant franchises before retiring. Last December, both Levine and his wife contracted COVID-19. Levine recovered, but his wife of 70 years did not. He now lives in Ithaca, N.Y., near his daughter, Jane.
Levine called having a family his proudest accomplishment.
"Just make every effort you can to make sure your family is happy and content,” he said. “To me, that is what life is all about, and if you have a family, you're a lucky, lucky person."
Randy Lilleston is the homepage editor for AARP.org. He previously served as editor-in-chief for business news publisher Industry Dive and was a senior digital editor for NPR, USA Today and CNN.