The Price a Veteran Pays

The impact of war is often measured by the number of lives lost or dollars spent, but those measures don’t tell the whole story.  The three months my father spent in Vietnam altered the course of his life and have affected the lives of everyone he has known since that time.

In the late 1960s, my father was a troubled teenager.  He had been expelled from Northeast Catholic High School in Philadelphia months before he was supposed to graduate.  His father had to intervene and beg the school to let him get his degree.  Following this, in an effort to make his family proud, he volunteered to join the U.S. Army and go to Vietnam.  He volunteered at a time when many men his age were drafted involuntarily and when some felt it was more honorable to flee the country than fight in the war.  He did it because he felt he could redeem himself in the eyes of his family.

In Vietnam, he served in a mobile infantry unit.  He was part of a small 3-4 man crew that operated a Track, a small armored vehicle out of which he would fire mortar rounds to attack the enemy.*  One day during an exercise, my father was accidentally shot three times by the gun mounted atop the Track.  The three bullets entered his body about midway up the left side of his torso.  Two of the bullets passed all the way through him.  The third bullet did not.  It ricocheted off bone, tore through his intestines and testicles and ultimately lodged in his right hip.

He was not expected to live.

The Army flew his father out to the hospital in Japan where he had been transported.  His father was flown out because he was not expected to survive.  This would not be the last time my father beat the odds.  His was eventually transferred to a military hospital in New Jersey; his days in combat were now over.

He's wounded in Vietnam and the paper can't even bother to get his name right, but hey, he got to meet Miss New Jersey.

Sadly, the Army would not award my father a Purple Heart because his wounds were suffered in a friendly fire incident.

From that day forward, my father’s life was altered by the horrors he experienced and the pain he dealt with every day.  The bullet that lodged in his hip would remain there until the early 1980s.  The bullet caused him to develop osteomyelitis, a bone infection, in his right hip joint.  The only solution he was offered was to entirely remove the hip joint.  The entire ball and socket that comprise the joint were removed.  His right leg was now several inches shorter than the left with the top of the femur now just rubbing against his pelvic bone stabilized only by scar tissue.  He was not expected to walk again, let alone walk without crutches.

For the majority of my life, he walked with only the support of a cane.

Every day of his life was now filled with pain.  His hip hurt.  His knees hurt.  His back hurt.  For the rest of his life, he would take pain pills, not Tylenol, but Tylenol #3 with Codiene or Darvocet or other equivalent medications.  Eventually, he built up such a tolerance to the medications that he would take them by the handful, 5-6 at a time, every 4 hours.

The wounds he had would cause him to be medically retired when he was in his early 30s.  He was considered 100% medically disabled and would not work full time.  It was too painful for him to sit at a desk all day.  With this, he would now spend everyday at home alone while my mom would work and I was off at school.  He was isolated.

He tried to pass the time with hobbies – he built models of clipper ships, fished, collected stamps, and several other pursuits – but he was isolated with only his thoughts and memories of war for company.  Before he had been medically retired, he turned to vices, cigarettes and alcohol, to help him forget his physical and mental pain.  The loneliness he now felt due to his retirement only exacerbated his troubles with those vices.

My father tried to reach out to a veteran’s organization in order to connect with others in his situation.  At that time, Vietnam Veterans were not respected, they were still considered baby killers and murderers, not soldiers, and the World War II vets would not except him.  The loneliness he experienced would turn into depression and with that he sunk into the grips of alcoholism.

He lived his life through a haze of strong pain medications and alcohol and it caused strain on the entire family.  He had already had one failed marriage after his experience in the war and his relationship with my mom would be a constant test of perseverance for both of them as they fought through his struggles.

The alcoholism caused several incidents that I remember vividly.  The most memorable of which was one Christmas Eve, when I had to have been about ten or twelve years old.  He started drinking wine early in the evening while wrapping presents and at one point left to pick up my step brother and sister from his ex-wife’s house.  I went out to the car with him and he asked me to go back and get something for him.  I remember having him promise me that he would wait for me, but of course he didn’t.  Hours passed and he didn’t come back.  I was sent to bed and my mom called her sisters asking for help.  I remember sitting in the window of my second floor bedroom, waiting for him.  Eventually, my uncles found him passed out on the side of the road and I remember coming out of my room, very late that night, to see them dragging him in.  He needed help.

He would be in and out of rehab several times.  Those programs addressed the alcoholism, but they never addressed what really drove it.  It wasn’t until the late 80s/early 90s that Vietnam veterans were more socially accepted.  My father started opening up about his experiences in the war.  He would start sharing his war experiences with my grandfather, a World War II veteran himself.  He was also finally awarded a Purple Heart by the Army and he joined the Military Order of the Purple Heart.  He found friends and enjoyed the camaraderie of people who had been through similar events.  He was able to quit drinking.

For several years, he led as normal a life as he would ever have.  For those years, he felt like a person again.

Always the charmer.

Once my mom died, he fell back into bad habits.  After decades of smoking and drinking, he developed cancer.  Two years ago after several rounds of treatments, trying to once again beat the odds, his heart gave out.  He died weeks before his 60th birthday.

A couple of months before he died, I asked him why he had volunteered to go to Vietnam.  That’s when he told me the story of wanting to make his family proud.

I told him he did.

And in doing so he paid a heavy price.  My father is now buried in Arlington National Cemetery with my mother.

I don’t tell this story looking for sympathy.  I have long ago come to grips with the effect his alcoholism had on our family and on me personally.  I want people to recognize those veterans who return from war are dealing with more than most will ever understand.  They need to be thanked and some need to be helped.

*-My apologies for any inaccurate terminology.  All of this is remembered from the stories my father told me before he passed away two years ago.