Wis. WWII vet was lobotomized by govt. after war

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LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) - Roman Tritz dreamed of flying. Gripping the yoke of a four-engine B-17 Flying Fortress was excitement and adventure for the boy who was born in Portage in 1923 and left school after eighth grade to help his father with the dairy cows.

“What did I like about flying?” A distant smile brightens his watery blue eyes. “Everything ….”

It was duty to his country that brought him to enlist in what was then known as the U.S. Army Air Force after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The oldest of 10 children on the farm, Tritz “figured he should be the one to go” and shipped off to England in fall 1944 to join the 728th Squadron of the 452nd Bombardment Group.

“That was the way it was,” he said.

He flew 34 combat missions, including one that took him deep into enemy skies so thick with German anti-aircraft fire that he and his crew had to sign an affidavit swearing that they weren’t forced to go. Halfway there, some wanted to turn back. Tritz told them to be brave.

“I told them, ‘You’re never going to defeat your enemies if you keep running away,’” he told the La Crosse Tribune (http://bit.ly/1lz9pMd). “‘Have your parachutes ready.’”

It was duty to his family that brought him - eight years after military doctors discharged him with a clean bill of health - to an operating table at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tomah.

Orderlies pinned him down, and doctors drilled holes in either side of his forehead. They cut into his brain, severing the nerve fibers between the prefrontal cortex - the part of the brain involved in personality expression, decision making and social behavior - and the thalamus, a region that receives and relays sensory perception.

They hoped the surgery would quiet the rabble of voices that had shouted inside Tritz’s mind since he returned home from combat in 1945. He had delusions, paranoia, disturbing thoughts. His sisters were afraid of him. His parents, after great deliberation and at the VA doctors’ recommendations, turned to psychosurgery.

“I never did want that lobotomy,” Tritz said. “But it was my duty to take it.”

Tritz, now 90, was one of roughly 2,000 World War II veterans lobotomized during and after the war, a recent Wall Street Journal investigation discovered. The procedure, once lauded as a “miracle cure” for nearly all types of mental illness, has since fallen so far out of favor in the medical community that it’s rarely even discussed, said Mario DeSanctis, medical director at the Tomah VA.

“I was shocked. I had a queasy feeling in my stomach,” DeSanctis said of his reaction to the Journal’s investigation. “Reading about what had happened to Roman, all I could think was ‘thank God we’ve progressed.’”

The first human lobotomy was done in 1935 by Portuguese neurologist Antonio Egas Moniz, but it was U.S. neuropsychiatrist Walter Freeman and his colleague James Watts, a neurosurgeon, who imported and popularized the procedure.

“Some people tend to look back on it as the dark age of psychiatry,” said Jenell Johnson, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of the book “American Lobotomy.” ”But at the time, lobotomy was not this barbaric procedure that was practiced by quacks.”

Moniz won the Nobel Prize for his work developing the lobotomy in 1949. Freeman also became famous, writing a regular column in the highly respected American Journal of Psychiatry and performing lobotomies in front of audiences.

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