- Posted by Jonathan Ringel
- On December 6, 2021
- Arlington National Cemetery, White & Case
On Veterans Day last month, the United States commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where a fallen serviceman from World War I is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
One of the pallbearers in those 1921 ceremonies was an associate from White & Case, and his story illustrates how far mental health treatment for veterans has come—and how far it still needs to go.
Charles Whittlesey, a graduate of Williams College and Harvard Law School, was 33 when he joined the Army after the U.S. entered the war in 1917. By October 1918, then-Major Whittlesey was commanding a battalion and was ordered to advance in the Argonne Forrest against German troops. His group succeeded, but other Allied units failed, leaving Whittlesey and his comrades surrounded.
Whittlesey would receive the Medal of Honor for his leadership of what became known as “The Lost Battalion,” which held its position as ordered despite constant attacks from the enemy, friendly fire from American artillery, cold rains and only carrier pigeons to relay messages for help. The soldiers went 104 hours without food before they were relieved, according to a 2017 account published in The Washington Post.
The war ended a month after the Argonne ordeal. Whittlesey, who had run a law partnership with a classmate before the war, joined White & Case’s banking practice in 1920, but also spent considerable efforts on veterans and Red Cross causes. In 1921, he was selected to be a pallbearer for the Unknown Soldier, an unidentified American exhumed from France and re-interred at the cemetery overlooking Washington as a symbol of national grief.
Two weeks later, Whittlesey boarded a ship bound from New York to Havana and was missing the next day, apparently having jumped overboard. In his room he’d left nine letters for friends and family.
In a front page article reporting his disappearance, The New York Times said that the ship’s captain sent a wireless message to one White & Case lawyer saying that Whittlesey had left him a message: “Look in upper-left hand draw of my desk for memoranda law matter I have been attending to. I shall not return.”
White & Case’s online history of the firm devotes a page to Whittlesey’s story. It notes that his friends were reported to believe that “his mind broke down through the misery he had seen as a result of the war.”
“He was very sentimental and those distressing appeals made him most anxious and worried,” a colleague noted, according to the firm history.
The 2017 Washington Post article quotes a contemporary veterans services director declaring that Whittlesey undoubtedly “suffered a lot of what we now call PTSD” (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which didn’t exist in Whittlesey’s era, has a National Center for PTSD. It reports that about 30% of Vietnam veterans have suffered PTSD during their lifetimes, while between 10% and 20% of veterans from both Iraq wars and the Afghanistan war show PTSD symptoms each year.
Clearly, there are many services available to veterans today that weren’t there for Whittlesey and others. But suicide remains a huge problem in the military. According to a recent study by Brown University, four times as many service members and veterans since 9/11 have taken their own lives than died in combat.
If you are a veteran or anyone else in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for free, confidential help.