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Brave men

Brattleboro doctor recalls the deeds of two heroes, separated by a century, at Memorial Day service

BRATTLEBORO—A longtime Brattleboro physician offered up a tale of two Army officers who lived and died a century apart at the annual Memorial Day service at the Common.

Robert Tortolani, M.D., who served as a battalion surgeon in the Army’s First Cavalry Division in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969, spoke of the heroism of Lt. Col. John Steele Tyler, a Brattleboro resident who died of his wounds in the Battle of the Wilderness on May 26, 1864.

Then he told a story that came closer to home for him: the death of First Lt. John Fitzgibbons, a friend during their time together in Vietnam. Fitzgibbons was killed in an ambush on Nov. 25, 1968.

Tortolani said he was particularly honored to share the stories of Tyler and Fitzgibbons, for they “exemplify the stories of countless other men and women who have served and sacrificed so we can be free.”

Born in 1843, Tyler was apprenticing at his uncle’s law office in Brattleboro when the Civil War broke out. He immediately volunteered for the Union army and raised a company of 100 local men for the Second Vermont Regiment of the First Vermont Brigade. The men in turn elected Tyler as their first lieutenant. He rose through the ranks, and by May 1864 was deputy regimental commander.

When the commander of the regiment was badly wounded, Tyler took command of 1,000 soldiers. His unit joined two other regiments in defending a key road junction against a Confederate force of 14,000. Within 12 hours of fighting on May 5, 1864, the brigade suffered losses of 1,234 men killed, wounded, or missing — the bloodiest day of the Civil War for Vermonters.

Tyler would be one of them. Shot in the thigh, he died in an Army hospital three weeks later.

“A fellow officer said, ‘Tyler didn’t know what fear was, and there was not an officer or man in the regiment that didn’t worship him,’” said Tortolani,

A century later, in another war, Tortolani spoke of another young officer thrown into combat’s crucible.

Fitzgibbons was born Nov. 8, 1945, in Wakefield, Mass., the eldest of 11 children. He went to Boston College and joined the Army’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), chose the infantry as his combat branch, and on completing his advanced training, was assigned as platoon leader in the First Battalion, Seventh Regiment, of the First Cavalry Division.

Shortly after arriving in Vietnam in September 1968, Fitzgibbons broke his ankle on jumping from a helicopter.

“It was at that time we met,” said Tortolani. “He was 23 and I was 27.” Tortolani, an Army captain who arrived in Vietnam only a week before Fitzgibbons, was the doctor who treated him.

“While caring for him and socializing many evenings, we became fast friends,” said Tortolani. “We shared our anxieties, but more our plans after the war. He frequently talked about the plans he and his new bride had for the future. I released him back to full duty just before Thanksgiving, and on that very night, he and six other members of his platoon were killed in a NVA [North Vietnamese Army] ambush.”

According to a story about Fitzgibbons in the Winter 2014 issue of the Boston College alumni magazine, Tortolani was working in the base clinic when the bodies of Fitzgibbons and the six other soldiers killed in the ambush were brought to him in green canvas bags. It was his job to open the body bags and record what he saw.

Recalling his examination of Fitzgibbons’s body the following morning, Tortolani told the magazine, “My training as a physician did not help me cope.” Fitzgibbons was “the one and only friend I had over there. After that, you put up an emotional barrier. You’re cordial, you’re pleasant, but you don’t let yourself get close to anyone.”

Seven other men died that night, and Tortolani said 90 of the 900 men in Fitzgibbons’ batallion were killed over the next eight months.

“What an honor and a privilege it was to have been involved in the care of these 900 men,” Tortolani told his audience on the Common. “I had never before or since experienced such bravery, comradery, and brotherhood among men.”

Tortolani said he wanted to contact Fitzgibbons’ family when he got back from Vietnam in September 1969, but didn’t do it. He said felt guilty about it for years, but he finally got his chance last year.

On the front page of the July 4 edition of The Boston Globe was a story about John Fitzgibbons and how his medals, lost more than 30 years earlier, had been found and returned to the family.

Tortolani said he immediately called the sister who was mentioned in the article, “and she was so happy to hear from a friend of her brother during his time in Vietnam. [...] The meeting with John’s mom and two of his sisters in December 2013 was wonderful for all of us, and they received me as a son and brother to them. It was as if John’s death occurred yesterday.”

Tortolani has been a doctor in Brattleboro for more than 40 years, and the veterans of Vietnam on his patient list have been joined by younger men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He says still thinks of his friend and the life that he could have had.

He said if Tyler and Fitzgibbons were able to address the small crowd on the Common, “I think they would urge us not to take life for granted, as it is fleeting, and they would ask us to fully take advantage of those freedoms for which they fought.”

The service, hosted by American Legion Post 5, included the participation of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1034, the Marine Corps League Det. 798, the Post 5 and Post 1034 ladies auxiliaries, and the Brattleboro American Legion Band.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #256 (Wednesday, May 28, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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