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First lobotomy performed in 1935; mainstream for two decades

With a wool cap tucked under his arm, Roman Tritz makes his way to a center booth as a server hands him his daily mail.

He places an order: two eggs over easy, two pieces of toast, two sausage links and unseasoned hash browns. A glass of water without ice is reserved for two orange pills.

His large-framed glasses hint at a pair of pilot goggles and the only color he wears – blue – gives a clue to the skies he once navigated.

Roman is treated like royalty at King Street Kitchen in La Crosse, a place only blocks away from his one-room apartment. He’s been coming here twice a day at 10:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. for more than half a century. The 90-year-old is like a high-powered executive with his parking spot, reserved seating and phone calls.

“Roman’s booth” functions as his dinner table, office and where he discusses the faint suction cup scars on his hairline. A tuft of white hair separates the old incisions.

His memory is like a fever dream, where time bends seamlessly for Roman, a World War II bomber pilot who grew up near Portage on a road that bears his family name.

It’s been “quite a while,” he said, since he has returned to his hometown. People who know him here say the full man never did come back.

His parents, Albert and Anna Tritz, were strong Catholics and well-known in the Portage community. On the dairy farm they needed the help of their three sons (Roman, Rolland and John) to work the land in a family of 10 children.

“Eleven,” Roman said. “My brother Marlin died as a baby.”

His only surviving sibling is Regina Davis who lives in Chilton. There are pockets of relatives in the area, but only the 83-year-old Davis has first-hand experience with her brother’s trauma.

“His world is a little bit limited, but I think he remembers the siblings,” she said.

It’s a question he’s heard often.

“A lot of people got that idea: that I don’t remember things. I only remember what I’m supposed to,” he said, unwrapping his silverware.

One thing he will never forget happened on July 1, 1953, when he was physically held down, strong-armed into getting a lobotomy at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Tomah. The brain surgery scraped and cut away connections to and from the prefrontal cortex, a region linked to personality expression, decision making and moderating social behavior. The lobotomy was thought to calm the voices he was hearing since coming back from the war.

Roman is one of about 2,000 World War II veterans who underwent a lobotomy at a VA hospital, according to agency documents dusted off by the Wall Street Journal.

The surgery also severed his ties to Portage. After the procedure, Roman had three trial stays at the family farm over a span of three years.

He was discharged from the VA Hospital in Tomah on March 30, 1957. A year later his mother, Anna, died. Roman stayed on the farm with his father, who was getting nervous about the voices his son was still hearing.

After his father came down with tuberculosis, the VA placed Roman in the care of other farm families around the area where he found work. Throughout this period he experienced seizures, and had more treatments. He soon moved to La Crosse to study at a technical school.

As he talks about his life after the war, Roman’s fingers graze over the markings above his temples. He calls the lobotomy a “mental intrusion.” Often, his mind weaves into government conspiracies that set off a distant, worried look in his eyes.

“The thing of it is I’m not Roman Tritz, you see,” he said.

Roman the quiet

The family farm no longer stands along Tritz Road in the town of Caledonia. All of that was taken down in the early 1960s.

Henry Hutterli, who still lives at a neighboring farm on Tritz Road, grew up with Roman, who he calls a “peach of a person” and easygoing.

“I saw him on a daily basis; he was a first-class person, just as normal as anybody,” said Hutterli, who is now 92.

Roman, who still reads the Portage Daily Register each day at his home in La Crosse, said he sees Hutterli’s name in letters to the editor.

“A decent person; we used to hunt pheasants,” Roman said.

Roman didn’t receive an education past eighth grade because he had to work on the family farm, but Dorothea Tritz, a sister-in-law who now lives in Arizona, said he was very intelligent. She considered him a dear friend.

“Imagine, he was a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps without an education, but he was not boastful,” she said. “He was very good with his hands, he liked to fly, and he was just a nice fellow.”

Roman’s only remaining sibling Regina said she remembers her oldest brother giving her advice in purchasing cars.

“He taught me to drive a car and was very patient with me about that,” she said.

Roman recalls the events from his childhood, but adds details that speak to his sharp mind and passion.

“A ’47 Nash Ambassador on quite a steep hill. After she got driving a bit didn’t do too bad, jerked it a bit, I think I stepped on the gas,” he said. “I wonder who taught the (older) girls. My father, I guess.”

As the first-born son, Roman’s five older sisters doted on him.

“Girls were gushing over me,” he said.

Not much into the social scene, Roman rarely drank — and if he did it was two beers. Instead of going out, he played cards with his parents, games like 500 and 66.

Both women describe Roman as a handsome young man with dark hair and blue eyes. However, he stuck to himself more often than not.

The world at war

At 21, Lt. Roman Tritz flew 34 bombing missions over Germany and occupied countries. The Army Air Force had Roman piloting a B-17 bomber, which he did under intense odds and relentless enemy fire.

When Roman talks about the war he uses one word to describe his experience: “Terrified.”

Tom Tritz, a nephew of Roman’s, is also a veteran and a voracious reader of military history. He lives in Kirkland, Wash., but has made it a point numerous times to see his uncle in La Crosse.

“He’s intelligent, capable and competent,” Tom said.

In a rough draft of a Tritz family reunion newsletter, he wrote: “To categorize these missions as dangerous would be an understatement since the life expectancy of a bomber crew was 13 missions or, eight to 10 weeks give or take.”

In March 1945, the military sent a news release to the Portage Daily Register-Democrat, about a near-death experience of the local pilot.

Roman’s B-17 Bomber “Puddin’s Pride” was caught in the slipstream created by the churning propellers of the other planes over Hamburg, Germany. The plane dropped 2,000 feet before he could regain control.

Although Roman said he doesn’t regret joining the military, he recognizes that what he witnessed made a permanent impression.

“It was hell for everybody: on land or in the air, trenches in the wintertime,” he said.

What Roman did like about the military was the ritual and expectations, he said. His life has been about routines.

“It’s no wonder the horror of what Roman went through, it would’ve gotten to anybody. Each generation seemed to have their own word for it, but it was battle fatigue, those guys go through hell,” Dorothea said.

Home, but foreign territory

In late 1945, Roman was discharged from the military with a clean bill of health, and he returned to the family farm. He would often lie down for long periods of time.

“After he came home from the service he would get rambunctious, might get angry at people. I don’t remember him being like that at all before he went to the service,” Regina said.

Hutterli, also a World War II veteran, said what combat soldiers experienced could color their world long after it ceased.

“Some years after the war, I think is what they now call post-war trauma, I think it was getting to him because when they bombed the German cities a lot of people died and it was getting to him, so he went to Tomah,” Hutterli said.

Roman mentioned the war a couple times to Hutterli, but their experiences were drastically different.

At times, Roman would be back in combat — not in a foreign land but in his bed in Portage.

“One dream I used to have so much is flying over a part of Russia and not knowing if it’s a friendly plane or not, then I wake up in my bed,” Roman said. “Don’t hardly have dreams (now.)”

Dorothea began to pick up on Roman’s health when she heard family members talking about him.

“I went over there and said something like, ‘How are you?’ and he said, ‘Does anybody really care?’ And that was a signal because it wasn’t like him. I think he was fighting things in his own mind,” she said. “I think that at the time it maybe was, God forbid something that would really help and some might have gotten help, but their minds are troubled to begin with.”

Roman’s parent’s also had gone through a lot — the Great Depression; two sons at war (Rolland on the USS Alabama); the death of their youngest son Marlin; the death of daughter Melinda from tuberculosis at 22; and concerns about the family safety when Roman came back.

“I don’t know why they were scared of me,” Roman said. “Never hit anybody, except Rolland,” he said of his younger brother.

The war did bother Roman looking back, Regina said.

“We probably didn’t appreciate all he went through then even. You live through it and don’t appreciate it all because you don’t know what it’s all like,” she said.

Building 400

In 1949, Roman’s parents had him committed to the VA hospital in Tomah because they were afraid of his erratic behavior.

There was no family shame or secret associated with Roman’s condition, but family matters remained in the family, Regina said.

“My mom and dad had a lot of concerns and a lot of heartache,” she said. “They were just strong people and very religious and I think that’s what kept them going.”

Roman’s parents met with doctors at the VA in Tomah and later a priest for advice.

According to Roman’s medical records, uncovered by the Wall Street Journal in a December series about lobotomies performed on World War II veterans, Roman was a patient for eight years in the VA.

During that time he survived 28 rounds of electroshock therapy, routine treatment of insulin-induced temporary comas, and 66 treatments of high-pressure hot and cold water sprays called the Scotch Douche and Needle Shower.

The final resort for Roman, the VA determined, was a lobotomy.

“At the VA I was on the floor, two or three guys on top of me and I threw them off me. To hell with this, I fought them. They said, ‘Roman, we’re going to take you to Building 400,” Roman said.

Building 400 was where the lobotomies were conducted, Roman said, and he wasn’t going there without a fight. When he woke up from the procedure, the staff asked Roman if he knew his name, which he did.

“I can’t believe they did it. After, I had a headache that no medicine or pill could stop,” Roman said.

The lobotomy didn’t help Roman’s mental state, Dorothea said.

“It was torture. I don’t know what the answer was and I’m not a doctor,” she said. “I shudder to think of what he went through.”

At times, Roman believes that he volunteered to have the lobotomy because they “needed someone strong, to lead.” However, his parents signed the consent form for the invasive surgery. Either way, imprints of the twin incisions remain.

“After I got out of the VA Hospital I went pheasant hunting with my dad. It was about 1957,” Roman said. “That was the last time I went hunting.”

According to the Wall Street Journal series, the U.S. government lobotomized about 2,000 mentally-ill veterans, and likely more, before and after World War II. Between April 1947 and September 1950, VA doctors lobotomized 1,464 veterans at 50 hospitals. The vast majority of the patients lobotomized were men, but some were female veterans. By the mid-1950s, lobotomies faded, with the antipsychotic drug Thorazine hitting the mental health care market.

The report went on to mention that a 1955 National Research Council study showed that there were 1.2 million active-duty troops admitted to military hospitals during the war for psychiatric and neurological wounds. After a lobotomy, doctors reported patients were less violent.

Roman said he is “content” now that his medical procedure is public.

“I’m glad about that … I’m happy the truth’s going to come out now.”

While some family members knew of Roman’s condition, others found out when the Wall Street Journal investigation was printed. That knowledge has changed the family dynamics, Regina said, and more of them are asking to see Roman.

“I think maybe people have come to understand him a little bit better, why he is the way he is now. When members of my family read what he went through — the pain — knowing that I think it has made them realize and understand a little more and compassion for all veterans I think,” Regina said. “Just thinking of what veterans have all gone through, what they have given up for the country and us, I think that’s really brought that home, not only for our family but maybe for other people who read the articles, too.”

Roman was isolated for years, his nephew Tom said, but the news about what he went through has garnered him some anonymous admirers. People who have heard about his story often send him letters to the dinner.

Roman has no phone in his small apartment and does not respond to mail. Family members contact him at the King Street Kitchen.

He even talks of visiting Portage again.

Routine

Coffee is reserved for Sunday, Roman said, but he drinks hot chocolate at night.

Darren Zumach, owner of King Street Kitchen, remembers being a teenager waiting on Roman. The staff expects Roman at the eatery twice a day, which he has done since 1962. As a regular, employees knew that Roman had surgery, but the extent of it startled Zumach.

“It’s unreal. I didn’t know they did all that stuff,” he said. “I’m pretty impressed that he’s made it after all he’s been through.”

Zumach said he’s seen how Roman has changed since the lobotomy became public knowledge.

“He’s opened up, he’s talking,” Zumach said.

Some people send letters with money toward Roman’s tab, he said, while others call the restaurant and pay for a meal on their credit cards.

“A guy that called Sunday was from the Coast Guard stationed out in Boston. He read the story in Stars and Stripes. He said he heard that he could call up and buy him a breakfast,” Zumach said. “It’s opened my eyes up. I feel like there’s a lot more good people in the world.”

Often, people have reverence for Roman’s service and thank him on Americana stationary.

“One day I got 14 letters, most days I get four to six,” he said. “I got a letter from one woman with a $500 check and she wrote, ‘forever grateful.’”

Thinking of Roman being more social makes Dorothea feel good.

“I don’t think he’ll ever be the way he used to be because it’s not a surgery that heals. I’m amazed he was able to support himself and he did,” she said.

After attending technical college in the 1960s, Roman worked in machine shops in the La Crosse area. He now lives on Social Security benefits and annuity payments from his years working.

He drives a blue car and continues to go to the VA for health care. He spends his time reading in his apartment and watches old TV shows like “Gilligan’s Island.”

Whenever his clothes get a hole in them, Roman gets out the needle and thread and repairs them. He does the same to his billfold. He even made his own hat.

Asked to describe himself, and again, Roman is on point.

“Friendly,” he said, “but reserved because I don’t know what to expect.”

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