"Fourteen million of us had our lives disrupted by World War II," says Richard C. Philbrick '42. "We put our lives on the line for our country, and we were proud to do it." PCD recently spoke to Philbrick, Amara Atella '01, and Lieutenant Colonel Robert Sullivan '96 about their time serving in the United States Army and the lessons they learned from their experiences. Atella and Sullivan both commissioned as officers following their studies at The Citadel in the early 2000s, while Philbrick was drafted to fight in World War II.
"All of us were just eighteen or nineteen years old," Philbrick says of being drafted into the Army in 1943. "I was put into a group with a lot of guys from Exeter, Andover, and Providence Country Day, and we all went to basic training together." After completing basic training in Texas and studying engineering at Louisiana State University as part of the Army Specialized Training Program, Philbrick was assigned to the 99th Infantry Division and sent to Europe.
"I couldn't tell my family when I was going because none of us knew," Philbrick says. While waiting to ship out in Boston, he spent three evenings in a row driving down to Providence to see his family. "I didn't realize that third evening was my last," he says. "The next day we shipped out and joined a huge convoy that was heading east to Europe."
While in Europe, Philbrick became a squad leader, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and was among the first complete division to cross the Rhine River in Germany. "The 9th Armored Infantry Division had discovered the last and the only standing bridge across the whole distance of the Rhine," Philbrick remembers. "That was one of the scariest days I ever had, going across that bridge. You had to do it on your hands and knees, you could look down and see the Rhine flowing under you, and there were shells landing all around."
Philbrick's time at the frontline ended when he was wounded shortly afterwards. When the war ended, he returned to Brown to finish his college degree, got married in 1948, and worked to put the war behind him. This did not mean, however, that he forgot the sense of duty or personal responsibility that he and so many other Americans had felt and demonstrated during the war. "We put our lives on the line for our country," says Philbrick, "and we were proud to be able to protect America."
Decades later, this same sense of duty and responsibility motivated Atella to join the Army, making the decision to do so when she was just twelve years old. "I don't think many people believed me, but since I was twelve, I said I was going to join the Army," says Atella. "I loved civil service, I loved giving back, and I felt that the Army was the ultimate profession to allow me to do that."
Atella felt strongly enough about joining the Army that she tried to enlist before going to college. When health complications prevented her direct enlistment, she says, "I fought my way in through The Citadel. It was my gateway into the military. 'If I can survive this school for a year, will you take me?' is basically what I pitched to the Army," Atella says. "And it worked."
After graduating from The Citadel, Atella commissioned as an officer and served in the Army for nearly thirteen years. During this time, she was an Army Corps Engineer and also worked with new recruits at basic training. Working as an Army Corps Engineer was "satisfying work," Atella says. "At the end of the day, you look back and you can see what you've accomplished. A lot of the work we did was for local communities: roads and bridges, hospitals and schools. You see the progress of what you're doing, and you know you'll have left something that the local community will value once you're gone."
Now working as a Department Manager for Kiewit Power Constructors, Atella still remembers the strong sense of personal responsibility that motivated her to join the Army—and how it was further developed during her time in service. "You have to acknowledge and be aware that you're responsible for your own actions," Atella says. "Succeeding and failing is on you and if you want something, then you have to work hard and fight for it."
Personal responsibility and hard work are familiar concepts to Sullivan, who also attended The Citadel before commissioning as an officer. "I come from a Navy family, and I wanted to challenge myself," Sullivan says. "I didn't want the regular college experience, I wanted more of a twist." While at The Citadel, Sullivan also participated in their ROTC program, which further motivated him to join the Army after graduation. "I fell in love with it, and that really led to my decision to commission as an officer in the United States Army," he says.
Following his commission, Sullivan served two tours of duty in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, ultimately spending nine years on active duty before leaving the Army in 2009. After a few years of civilian life, however, Sullivan decided to return to the Army Reserves in 2013. "I've been in ever since," Sullivan says. "I've got almost seventeen years of total service now."
"Military veterans know about sacrifice," he says, reflecting on his time with the Army. "They know about selfless service, and they know about integrity and honor. As an officer, you're the first one in and you're the last one out. Everything that your unit does or fails to do ultimately falls on you as the officer. Personal accountability and responsibility are important, and I think about that a lot."
These traits were first cultivated at PCD, Sullivan believes. "I came out of there as an eighteen-year old kid who decided that I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. I cherish my time at PCD because it laid that foundation for me."
Atella agrees, saying, "The concept of giving back and helping others grow is a trait you look for in young leaders, and that's something that PCD helped instill in me." PCD also helped cultivate an ability to be open minded and thoughtful when evaluating her experiences, something that has allowed Atella to identify and process her most important lesson from serving in the Army: the gift of perspective. "Living all over the world, experiencing and being immersed in different types of cultures gave me great perspective," Atella says. "I have lived in places where even the right to speak up against the country's leaders does not exist. We are very fortunate in this society for the freedom and liberties that we do have."
Philbrick agrees, saying, "During World War II, we put down some of the worst dictatorships the world has ever seen. I couldn't do it again for ten million dollars, but it was something that had to be done. We fought with the hope that afterwards, the world would develop in fairness to everyone—and I've never forgotten that."