My father was a medic in Vietnam. I never really got to know him—not because he was killed in action, but because of what happened afterward.
He wasn’t stationed in Vietnam, which gave him great survivor’s guilt. He was “safe” on a little island not far away that they used to evacuate and triage the wounded. It was beyond gut-wrenching seeing all the young men, many of them his age, covered in blood, missing limbs, looking like mangled pieces of meat. The guilt of patching them up, to send them back was a nightmare he lived over and over and over again. He found his escape in alcohol and more.
By the time he came home he blamed everyone for his pain including my mother and me. He used his fists to show us just how much he hurt. We left and he lost custody of me. I reconnected with him about 25 years ago, after the birth of my first son. We had no idea where he was, so I checked the last place we’d seen him and with the help of a very nice 411 operator (there really wasn’t an internet in those days) I found his brother, my uncle. It turned out my father wasn’t doing so well. He’d married twice more, I had three half siblings—but both his wives left him too and he hadn’t seen my half-siblings in years. He was isolated. Rarely went out. He didn’t have a phone, so we never got the chance to talk. But we did write letters back and forth for about 6 months.
He told me that he no longer had a bed because the nightmares had gotten so bad he couldn’t sleep through the night anymore. He’d been to the VA, but there didn’t seem to be much that they could or maybe would do. He wasn’t physically injured and more importantly hadn’t been injured to their way of thinking in the line of duty.
He met his end, we think collapsing in the hallway. That’s where my uncle found him when he hadn’t come for a lunch date. He likely died a few days prior, as it was July and they knew even before the landlord opened the door. The Coroner called it “Effects of Alcoholism,” but I firmly believe it was Vietnam. He just took longer to die. He was only 45.
I did go to his funeral—the first I remember meeting his side of the family. I learned what an extremely funny, creative individual he’d been. And that he liked to write too. In fact, he’d written his eulogy in which he envisioned that everything in his life would one day fixed and his family reconciled. I did meet my brother and we have kept in touch. I’ve also found my two sisters. And even though I was adopted by a wonderful new dad, I’m proud to say in many ways, I’m definitely Bob’s daughter.
I recently met some remarkable young men at the Veteran Student Services Office at IUSB. William is still enlisted and trying to finish up his degree, Dexter hopes to work in Human Resources one day soon, and Wayne, an artist specializing in military art hopes to go to graduate school.
I’ve been told things are getting better for our active duty members and veterans. We’re much more aware of things like PTSD and the high rate of suicide that affects our men and women in the service. And there are so many more programs out there to help with things like building a new network of support, housing, school, taxes. But it’s not enough. We need to continue to improve the conditions for our soldiers and veterans. They do so much for us, we need to have their backs. Sometimes it’s difficult to ask for help when you need it most. Don’t be afraid to reach out and lend a hand or maybe just an ear. It could make all the difference in the world. I know Bob would want it that way. William, Dexter, and Wayne deserve it,