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Patton grandson in own battle to aid veterans

By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / March 11, 2012
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At 18, Benjamin Patton anticipated a career in the Navy. Grandson of World War II’s legendary General George S. Patton and the youngest of five children born to Major General George Patton IV, who served in Vietnam, Ben Patton felt it was his duty to represent the family’s towering military legacy for his generation.

Then he changed his mind.

“Every time I got to that decision point, I asked, ‘Do I have that attitude, like an NFL running back, going in there full-tilt?’ ’’ he said.

Those doubts led him down another path. Eventually, he became a documentary filmmaker.

“It took some time to be at peace with that,’’ said Patton, whose home base during a peripatetic childhood was the family farm, Green Meadows, in Hamilton. Now 47 and a resident of New York, he is committed to serving his country in another way. With his film production, Patton specializes in helping military veterans document their lives and experiences - and, in many cases, confront the issue of posttraumatic stress disorder.

“I think I’m more effective not being in the military but being an advocate for veterans and military families,’’ Patton said earlier this month by phone while he was attending a conference on posttraumatic stress disorder at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

He has just written a book, “Growing Up Patton: Reflections on Heroes, History, and Family Wisdom,’’ which focuses on his father and how his father handled the expectations of being the larger-than-life General Patton’s son.

If the World War II general was renowned for his heroic self-image and his emphasis on leadership, his son took his own approach to military service. He loved nothing better, said Ben Patton, than fostering camaraderie among his troops.

“You often heard him refer to privates and sergeants by name,’’ he said. “He’d remember, even if it was some guy he just met on the road.’’

Major General Patton often made a point to sit down with the enlisted men to eat scrapple and corned beef hash.

“He could just as easily have been a private, wearing fatigues and driving a truck,’’ Patton said.

Through vignettes about the people who meant most to his father - family members, colleagues, and, in one case, a son of one of his father’s former Nazi enemies - “Growing Up Patton’’ renders a portrait of the younger General Patton as a man who held selflessness and loyalty in the highest regard. George Patton IV died in Hamilton in 2004 at age 80, after suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

Though his grandfather was the one with the outsize reputation, “really, my father was the titan in my life,’’ said Patton. “I felt there was an interesting story connecting my grandfather and my father, and the progress from one generation to the next. I wanted to capture that.’’

He’s certainly not the first Patton to become an author. Both generals wrote books, and Patton’s older brother Bob will publish his fifth book later this year. But Ben Patton’s book is not like the other family histories, said his mother, Joanne.

“He’s brought his own perspective to this book, and nobody else’s,’’ she said in a separate interview. “He really was on a mission to open doors with this.’’

Being the youngest of five, she said, may have given her son heightened observational skills.

“Ben’s pores are open,’’ she said. “He’s sensitive to the needs of others. He really is called to do it.’’

Both mother and son agree that Joanne’s late husband encouraged their children to follow their passions, just as he felt compelled to enter the military despite his father’s intimidating legacy. (“Growing Up Patton’’ relates the story of George Patton IV’s graduation ceremony at West Point, where one man said to him, “Well, George, you’ll never be the man your father was, but congratulations.’’)

“He had a hard time convincing people he went in [the military] for his own reasons,’’ said Joanne Patton. Her husband often told his children “what was most important was that they follow their hearts. He freed them, truly, to go their own way.’’

Ben Patton can recall going to see the film “Patton,’’ starring George C. Scott, with his family when he was about 7.

“I was already a general’s kid,’’ he said. “We were quite aware we were from a special family.’’

The family moved often during his childhood - by his count, 11 times by the time he turned 13. But they always returned to the Hamilton farm. From age 14, it was Ben’s primary home. The land is now a community-supported agriculture farm. In a town where the school athletic teams are called the Generals, the Sherman tank that rests in the town park stood guard over Ben Patton. Attending fourth grade while his father stayed on the farm recuperating from a hip replacement, he steered clear of the class bully by telling the boy he had keys to the tank.

“That kept my head from being buried in the dirt,’’ he said, laughing.

Both his father and his grandfather had well-chronicled episodes in which they were enraged by soldiers suffering from battle fatigue, and the new author deals with that directly in “Growing Up Patton.’’

“I’ll leave it to history to decide whether they were right or wrong,’’ he said.

Patton won’t apologize for them, though he does note the incidents were “reflective of the time. They really didn’t understand that battlefield fatigue was very serious.’’

Knowing he was a Patton was “important not so much for the unearned, reflected glory but the responsibility that came with that,’’ he said. “My parents were very clear to emphasize with us that any acclaim or notoriety was unearned.’’

Patton is earning it now, paying forward his family’s legacy by working with posttraumatic stress disorder victims.

“We really make an effort to connect with veterans’ groups from any war,’’ he said, “to say ‘thank you’ whenever possible.’’

Benjamin Patton will appear at the Pingree School, 537 Highland St. in South Hamilton, on April 5 at 7 p.m. to discuss his film work and “Growing Up Patton.’’ For more information, visit www.growinguppatton.com. James Sullivan can be reached at sullivanjames@verizon.net

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