Discovering The Battlefield Where My Father Almost Died Gave Me The Will To Live

The incredible way my dad saved my life from beyond the grave.

woman reading papers Artem Oliinyk / Shutterstock

The faded postcard on my mother’s refrigerator teased me for years.

On the front, a sepia-toned photo of a church steeple rising above the German village of Prum.

On the back, this note:

"Jim," it said. "Just in case you wondered what Prum looked like close up."

Dad had been a medic with the 4th Medical Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, of the 4th Infantry Division in World War II. The buddy who had sent the card had made it to Prum. Dad hadn’t. He’d gotten hit by shrapnel from a German shell. He got Last Rites three times.


RELATED: 15 Quotes I Turned To After Both Of My Parents Died

As soon as I saw that postcard, I wanted to do that trip — with Dad.

Now, finally, I was. But Dad had been dead for 16 years. And I was in a firestorm of a divorce.

I’d long been in denial about my marriage. Finally, reality shattered my romantic illusions. I woke every morning at 3 am, staring into the darkness. My weight plummeted.

"Every day I get up and there’s less of mama," my high school daughter told her big sister. I landed in the hospital with a panic attack that felt like a heart attack.

I started therapy, got medication, wept on friends’ shoulders, read self-help books, and listened to podcasts about recovery on my daily runs, but got nowhere.


I decided to find the place where the 19-year-old Jim Rice had come so close to death but had chosen life.

Dad mostly told funny stories about the war. Things like riding the back of a tank through Normandy, knocking back some cheap Calvados, an apple brandy, and having the worst hangover of his life. I always have Calvados around because of that story.

"Solves a lot of problems for twenty dollars," a liquor store owner once told me.

But Calvados, I knew, was not my solution. Or at least, not long-term.

I got Dad’s military records and found a Belgian guide who was a World War II expert. And on a sunny August morning in 2018, my 16-year-old daughter and I met our guide, Marcel Vaessen, and traveled 74 years back in time through the Ardennes and the Eifel, a mountainous land of forest and farm fields.


Dad and the 22nd fought the 1st Waffen SS Panzerkorps in the Eifel in the cold and rainy fall of 1944.  Their boots never dried. Fog kept Allied planes grounded. And from there they went straight to the Battle of Bulge, Germany’s final offensive into the Ardennes.

It was a brutal winter. Death surrounded Dad. Once, as he ate K-rations, he realized he was sitting on the frozen carcass of a horse. Closer to the front, he saw dead people.

Marcel drove us along Dad’s route. We could see the Siegfried Line, nearly 400 miles of pillboxes, and obstacles like concrete pyramids called Dragon’s Teeth designed to rip out the underbellies of tanks. As Marcel talked, the green fields and blue sky of a bucolic summer day faded before my eyes and I saw the black and white of a winter war.

We drove to the village of Sellerich, down the valley from Prum. There’s a church and a few homes with garages and piles of wood next to the driveways. Flowers and fruit trees bloomed in the yards.


Marcel pulled out a photocopy of a type-written paper. “Hq Combat Team,” it said at the top. The date: February 16, 1945. The day started early, at 04:30 Germans attacked an observation post. The Americans fought back, taking one prisoner of war. Artillery and mortar fire continued throughout the day.

RELATED: What Grief Really Means And How To Know What's Normal Or Healthy When You're Grieving

And then, "Between 1735 and 1745, approximately eight rounds of medium caliber artillery fell in the immediate vicinity of 019881." The coordinates for Dad’s unit.

Marcel pointed at the field. “That’s it.”

The sunny field before me morphed into one covered with snow. There were just a few tents. This was an army on the move. Soldiers slept where they could, in farm sheds, houses, trenches, foxholes, and never for long.


I heard the thud of a howitzer recoiling, the scream of missiles tearing through the air, and cries of "Incoming!" I remembered Dad laughing as he told the story, saying he ran "like hell." But he wasn’t quite fast enough. I heard calls of, "Medic, medic!"

This was it. The place where life goes on. Or doesn’t. Where a teenage soldier dies and his story ends. Or he lives and goes home and becomes a husband and a father and a judge and a runner and a skier. And one of the kids he has was me. And beside me was one of my kids.

Dad almost didn’t make it. I almost wasn’t born. But he lived. Even after being hit with so much shrapnel that he carried some of it in his back for the rest of his life, marked by a scar that for decades he could "wink" for us kids using the muscles underneath — he chose to live.

Because he had things to do, people to love, fun times to have, and joy and hope and change.


I looked at the field. I talked to Dad.

I’m like you, I told him. I’m gonna live hard and long and well.

I decided to leave New York and move to the mountains I’d left years before and had promised myself I’d return to. But I dragged my feet. I thought I should stay in New York, so my kids would have their old home to visit, even though they had their father and grandmother there.

And then, a young surgeon stood before me.

"You have cancer," she said and handed me a piece of paper.

"Stage four," I read. "Six months."

I looked at her.

"I’ll pray for you," she said.

I was scared. I was furious. I had a whole new life to live. And now, this?


RELATED: My Incurable Cancer Compels Me To Imagine How My Sons Might Look After I’m Gone

Then, I saw this sentence on the printout. Twice. "There are some long-term survivors."

I hugged it to me like it was my baby. And, for a moment, I was in a snowy, muddy field in Germany. Artillery boomed and a young soldier ran like hell.

Don’t worry Dad, I thought. I’m gonna live long and hard and well. Just like you.


"You will," I heard him say. And he winked that old scar at me.

I told my kids. "I’m gonna live," I said. "I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I will."

Within five days, I was at a hospital that specialized in the aggressive cancer I’d been diagnosed with. I had another surgery. "The odds aren’t good," the surgeon told me. And then he added, "But, we do cure some people with this cancer."

You know what part of that I hugged tightly to myself.

Every day, I did yoga and power walked while the new scar healed. "You heal fast," the radiation team told me. Then, I had five weeks of radiation and chemo.

Every morning, I ran or powerwalked. "We don’t usually see patients do this at this stage of treatment," said my chemo doc. 


My treatment ended, and I went straight to the mountains I loved. I started immunotherapy. My doctors started using the word "cure."

In the winter I’m a ski instructor, on the mountain all day long. I’m a rock ’n roll radio DJ. I run. I hike. I paddle board. I have parties in my dream house with a big deck and windows full of mountain views. The occasional moose wanders by.

And my kids have a map of how to get to Sellerich. It’s a map of how to live. With love and joy and laughter.

RELATED: 65 Healing Grief Quotes To Help You Or Someone You Love Cope With Loss

Kate Rice is an author, prize-winning reporter, analyst, editor, and activist.