Local Hero Sy Brenner Advocates for Veterans
Jewish American Heritage Month 2013 Honoree
For years, Sy Brenner kept it bottled inside, blocking it out of his memory while moving on with his life. After all, the war was over, and he was no longer being held captive.
He tried to forget, putting the horrors he saw in war and in prison behind him. Never telling his family, his friends or his co-workers. He found success in his work and was considered one of the top salesmen in his company. People loved him for his genial personality and knack for making them laugh.
And then, one day, all that he’d kept hidden, even from himself, began to manifest itself in bursts of anger and hostility. Without realizing it, he was insulting his friends and business associates, and it started impacting his work. The people who once gravitated to him no longer wanted anything to do with him. It became so bad that he had to retire early, and it was then that he sought help.
This is Brenner’s story. A Jewish American Heritage Month Local Hero honoree, Brenner is a World War II veteran and former prisoner of war. He is also the recipient of a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, a Combat Medic Medal, and a litany of other honors given to him for his service and sacrifice.
Yet, Brenner’s story could be that of any veteran and ex-POW. It could be that of anyone who has suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress (also known as PTS or PTSD), which can disrupt your life, make you lose sleep, and compel you to relive, over and over, the traumatic events you've experienced. Except for one thing: Brenner decided to draw from his experiences to make a difference. Refusing to allow his post-traumatic stress to overtake him, for the last two decades he has been speaking out about the illness, its effect and treatment.
Brenner, who at 91 is legally blind, didn’t learn he had post-traumatic stress until 1987, when he joined a POW group and began to talk about the nine months he spent in captivity. He is grateful to William P. Mahedy, the POW chaplain who helped him and invited him, along with seven other prisoners of war, to share his memories of war to a UCSD history class. He found that talking about it helped him cope.
"The best thing you can do is talk about it," says Brenner, "and that’s what I do. I talk to kids in schools. Believe it or not, when the Jewish Federation invited me to join a group of students for a tour of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, I even talked to the kids about the war and PTS on the bus ride up.”
Brenner has since made over 68 presentations to students, mental health professionals, the Navy, and to leadership classes at Camp Pendleton.
“Educating about PTS,” asserts Brenner, “is important to me because when I joined the prisoner of war group, I was fortunate enough to have Mahedy, who educated people on how to cope with PTS. When I returned from war, they called it ‘Battle Fatigue,’ and the first order that I had was not to talk about it. You were given orders that you cannot even tell your family what you did when you were a prisoner. I found out from the other men that they had signed papers that they wouldn’t talk about it, which was the worst thing they could’ve done because we all kept it bottled up inside of us all those years. Mahedy told me, it’s going to blow out of the top of your head, and he was right."
Mo Bailey, the youngest of Brenner's three children, is proud of her father and his efforts to help others, noting, “My father’s brought a lot of awareness to PTS with humor and a little dancing. His style makes this tough subject palatable to a wide range of audiences. Since these are some of the strategies he’s been helped by in coping with PTS, he literally walks his talk in his talks! He incorporates useful information for two main groups: those suffering with PTS and those around them too. He pays these lessons forward with a vengeance, as it is his personal mission to help others find solace and relief.”
Brenner traces the roots of his post-traumatic stress to what he calls, “The Night I Got Killed,” which is the title of his memoir, co-authored with Abraham J. Shragge. He was serving in southern France on that night, November 29, 1944, when he was presumed dead after an explosion. But in actuality, he was taken prisoner by the Germans.
Brenner has vivid memories of the incident. In particular, he remembers the soldier that was with him, and who saved his life with one simple act. An act that made the difference between life and almost certain death.
“We were going to hide by a farmhouse,” Brenner recalls. “I saw a tank and a flash. The Germans blew the house up, and my body went up in the air. Everyone thought I got killed, but I didn’t. When I recovered, the man lying beside me said, ‘I broke your dog tag in half so that they wouldn’t know you were Jewish. I told them you had the wrong blood type listed.’ Dog tags have either a P for Protestant, C for Catholic, or H for Hebrew, and he probably saved my life by getting rid of the half with the H so the Germans wouldn’t know I’m Jewish. I don’t know who he was, except that he was another American taken prisoner, and I call him my righteous Christian. To me he was the Unknown Soldier and a real hero.”
Since he had served as a medic in the 2nd Battalion before he was taken prisoner, the Germans assigned Brenner to the duties of physician, something he did not feel qualified to do.
“A medic is the first aid the wounded get on the battlefield," he explains. "I’d jab them with morphine for pain, bandage and carry them off the field, sometimes walking a mile to the aid station, where there were doctors who’d take care of them after that. My training was how to take care of a wounded man, but you might say, I had more training in carrying stretchers off the field.”
Needless to say, Brenner did his best to treat the wounded prisoners, often relying on his sense of humor to ease their pain. “For my first patient, I had to remove his toe,” he recalls, “and they didn’t have any anesthetic. He was biting on a stick when I cut his toe off. 'No soccer for two weeks,' I told him, and that made him laugh. So, I started telling jokes and singing silly songs that I’d make up, using popular songs of the day. I made them laugh.”
Despite numerous bouts with illness, including one last year, when the doctors didn’t think he’d make it, Brenner seems to be doing fine.
“I’m doing better, now that I’m talking about PTS and being active.”
To prove his point, Brenner turns on a cassette player he keeps nearby and starts playing a lively tune from the Big Band era. He pulls himself out of his chair, and starts dancing, tripping the light fantastic. Clearly, the man still has it and knows how to cut a rug.
Brenner is a man who sees the glass as half full. Three years ago he lost Resa, his wife of 61 years. Still, today he says, "I'm a very fortunate man. I have three wonderful children, six grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. I'm a lucky guy."