Vietnam has taken another life, too soon

Bob was just a boy from a small town in Massachusetts who graduated from high school and didn’t know what he wanted to do. He was a good looking kid, with a consistent and engaging smile, a rye sense of humor and a delight in making people feel uncomfortable and then rescuing them from their own embarrassment. He considered several vocations, tried some, and then decided he would join the Army before he got drafted. This was 1969, the height of the Vietnam war, he figured if he joined he might have a say in where he was sent and what he would do, many had that misconception and most ended up in Vietnam ducking bullets, and fighting to stay alive.

Bob drove a fuel truck through the highlands of Vietnam accepting multiple risks of; bombing, enemy fire, and U.S. napalm attacks, he didn’t know at the time that the smell he was experiencing while out on the road was a silent killer. Bob served admirably in Vietnam and left with no apparent wounds so no purple heart for him. He stayed in and went on to do tours in Alaska and Germany, rose to the rank of Sargeant. Then he started to experience severe headaches and sporadic seizures, this spelled the beginning of the end of his military career. He and the Army decided it was time for him to go home. His intentions were to embark on the standard civilian life, move back in with the family, get a job, and begin his civilian career in earnest. His life moving forward would be anything but normal.

Bob found it difficult to hold down a steady job due to his afflictions, tried his luck as a truck driver, parts runner, and several other occupations, went through a period of heavy and consistent drinking and resulting in some minor run-ins with law enforcement. All the while his seizures worsened, his medication increased, and his ability to maintain a “normal” lifestyle was severely disrupted, he was then declared 100% disabled. The VA couldn’t tell him the cause of his afflictions only that is was related to his action in Vietnam, at this point, the military had not faced up to the reality of the damage Agent Orange had inflicted on our own soldiers.

Bob lived with his mother, they took care of each other, mom (Meme) being alone after the four girls all got married and moved out and their father passed away as a result of a car/bus accident, he was the one in the car. After a while, they became as close to an old married couple as a mother and a son could be with Meme in her later years and Bob with his limited mobility they spend long hours together trading barbs and entertaining each other. This arrangement went on for many years where Bob spent his days, with breakfast at Brigham’s, conveniently owned by a family friend, stops at the local service station to see his buddies, and his love of reading westerns and of course the Red Sox. He followed the team religiously and lived and died with their victories and defeats. His drinking now under control with Pepsi as the replacement and cigarettes being his constant companion, his formative years were the time when everybody smoked it seemed and for some, it was temporary, a coming of age thing, but for others like Bob, it was permanent. His family hoped that he would beat the cigarettes just as he had stopped the drinking but there was little or no sign of that happening.

As Meme got older and things began to change around town, Bob had an epiphany, one of his friends had moved to South Carolina and continuously sang it praises to Bob. There were multiple advantages, a big veteran population, tax advantages for veterans especially disabled Vets,, a cost of living 30% to 35% below that of our beloved “Taxachusetts”. Suddenly Bob made the announcement “I’m moving to South Carolina”, none of the family believed him, there was a bit of a history of unfulfilled declarations and this was assumed to be just another one of them. Soon though he was packed and ready, off to SC.

Bob didn’t go to the more recognizable cities in the Carolinas’ like Charlotte or Charleston, he went to a small town in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains, quiet and inexpensive just how he liked it. He always made friends easily, and SC was no different, he quickly found a group of folks with like backgrounds and reasonably close in age, many of them transplants from the Northeast. He was a regular participant in the “Breakfast Club”, ruled out square dancing and made a weekly ritual of the “Singles Night”. South Carolina was the right place for him at a time when he needed broader companionship and a more active social life than he had experienced back home. He was a constant promoter of the Red Sox in an area that the Atlanta Braves were the team to root for and many of his new friends had adopted them as their own. The Red Sox were his team and now that they were winning world championships he had something to brag about. He connected with the Veterans Administration in SC and was embroiled in constant battles with them over getting timely appointments, difficult during that period, and even now, debates over medications, annual re-evaluations to validate his disability and the causal relationship with Agent Orange. He would frequently have to go outside the VA network frustrated at their inaction to get the treatment he required.

As he settled into his routine in South Carolina he would make an annual trip back home to visit his sisters and their families in Massachusetts, always the favorite ” Uncle Bob” to all the nieces and nephews and later the grandkids. Bob had a thing with children, they related to him and he delighted in watching them grow and spending time playing with them as much as he could. Frequent naps were required to combat the headaches and seizures he was experiencing even with the long list of medications he was now consuming. As time went on his smoking and the ailments from Vietnam led to a progressive form of COPD which limited his physical exertion and made the trips north even more stressful to him and the family, he always drove, not a fan of flying, he wouldn’t even consider it. He would do the sixteen-hour drive in two segments, stopping at close to the midpoint for a nights rest, the fear was that he would get cocky and try to drive right through and he might well have and just didn’t tell anyone so they wouldn’t worry, that was Bob, single-minded and stubborn as a mule at times. He would drive twenty or thirty minutes out of his way to go to a restaurant that made him comfortable and waitresses that recognized him. He made a sport of teasing waitresses and also treating them well, he appreciated their attention to his pet peeves.

Over the past few years, the COPD was getting progressively worse and now he was wrestling with a new challenge, his hearing, another battle with the VA to get the proper hearing aids so it wasn’t necessary to speak loudly in order for him to hear. His stubbornness paid off in some cases and this time he finally got the prescription he needed and life was a little easier. The COPD was severely limiting his energy and two years ago he made the painful decision to forego the annual trip up north, concerned that he wouldn’t be able to complete the trip, and would be stuck somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. His sisters tried to convince him to just take it slow but his mind was made up, he just didn’t feel up to it. There would be trips down to SC by some of the family but it just wasn’t the same. Not having Bob’s visits with his tour of the sister’s homes, visits with the nieces and nephews and the treasured times with their children. Recently the calls became less frequent and the sarcastic jokes and laughter didn’t come as easily. Things were getting worse, the COPD was now affecting him to the point that he would miss some breakfasts, he was in a battle with the VA to get oxygen so he could have it 24/7 rather than just at night when trying to sleep.

The pursuit of the oxygen began with a trip to the VA and an evaluation that resulted in them telling him he didn’t need the oxygen he was just being affected by the humidity. It does get humid in South Carolina in August but he wasn’t new to that he’d been living there for thirteen years. Next, was a trip to the emergency room because he just couldn’t catch his breath, that resulted in a visit with a civilian doctor, not a VA doctor, who immediately ordered the oxygen to be delivered to Bob’s home. That Friday he got the oxygen delivered and coincidently he also had a call with one of his sisters and he told her about the oxygen and that he had had a tough couple of days with the emergency room trip and the fight with the VA. Bob didn’t sound good, no jokes, not too many stories, Bob was always good for stories and lengthy phone calls as a result. This wasn’t one of those calls, it was brief for Bob and different in so many ways, she was worried by the end of the call.

As mentioned earlier Bob had attracted a solid group of friends both male and female in South Carolina and they were all part of the “Breakfast Club” and fierce protectors of each other. He had one special friend, probably his “best friend”, who looked after him when he was getting weaker and had him to his house for dinner twice a week. They had a special bond that men sometimes find later in life, maybe it stems from the acknowledgment that they have made it through tough times and lived a good life that they were committed to extending by fighting through together. When Bob missed two or three breakfast in a row his friend was worried and decided to check on him, he got together with another friend and went by Bob’s house. When they got there the door was unlocked, uncharacteristic of Bob, so they went in to see if all was well, it was not. Bob was lying on his bed, half on half off with his newly acquired oxygen hooked up but he was a troubling color blue. They immediately called 911 and the Sheriff, paramedics, and the fire department were there in minutes, after a very brief examination their finding was clear, Bob was gone.

Bob in his youth wasn’t predicted to be President or CEO of a big company, he was going to be a good man that had a family and would raise some good citizens to share their values and knowledge with the world. He made a decision to join the army to fight for our country in a time when that wasn’t very popular, there were no parades for the returning heroes ( heroes they were). He served our country proudly and bore the burden of that service for the rest of his life, unable to commit to a relationship because he believed his time was short due to his ailments. After completing his service he really didn’t have one “normal day”, he fought his headaches and seizures daily as a result of the horrors of the Vietnam war and his exposure to Agent Orange. Then the VA let him down when they should have been more aggressive in their treatment of his COPD which may well have saved his life.

Bob was seventy years old, he died on or right after his birthday, hard to tell because of the circumstances when exactly he passed away, some might say he lived long, but he had farther to go and much more to see. The shame is in the fact that he died alone, in his bed, far from his family and the people that loved him. He like many other veterans deserved more than that, the VA could have been more responsive and Bob might have asked for help from one of the organizations that are sprouting up recently to lend a hand to struggling veterans. We should be vigilant not to continue repeating this mistake of lack of attention to veterans health now or in the future. These men and women are the heartbeat of America and we need to nurture this resource and ensure that they are treated with honor and respect when they come home. If you see a veteran stumbling reach out and lend a hand, if they have an illness and they need support, be the first in line to provide it. We are free because of these men and women make sure they know we appreciate it.

Some who knew him might assume Bob died because of his addiction to smoking, that certainly contributed, I believe he is another in a long list of casualties of the Vietnam war, another fallen hero in service to America.

Bob was my wife’s brother, and a special friend to me, we will miss him every day.

22 thoughts on “Vietnam has taken another life, too soon”

  1. God bless Bob’s soul and may he watch over the family from heaven above. We all owe him and all of our veterans a debt of gratitude that is seldom bestowed upon them. God bless them All.

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