Opinion: Toll of war continues long after hostilities stop

One panel of 'The Wall', displaying some of the names of fallen U.S. service members from the Vietnam War. (Photo by Hu Totya, Licensed under GFDL - http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

vince_leibowitz_headshotBy Vince Liebowitz

This weekend, they will talk about how Memorial Day is for those who lost their lives in combat, and how Veteran’s Day is for the veterans who lived.

They will talk about World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq I, Iraq II, Afghanistan, etc.

Somewhere during the news anchor’s voiceover, you will see a shot of “The Wall.” You know, that one. For the Vietnam guys. The one with all the names. The war that we didn’t want to talk about when they got home.

That was my dad’s war. But we don’t honor him today, even though that war undoubtedly killed him.

We don’t honor my dad today because, although Vietnam killed him, he didn’t die in the war.

No, my dad wasn’t one of “those” guys who came back “shell shocked” or so overwrought that he became a ghost of a person.

He was the radio mechanic stinging the com infrastructure in the jungles in 1967 and 1968 to support the front line soldiers.

Dad was a victim of Vietnam because he was a victim of Agent Orange.

I was ten years old when my dad had a stroke. He was 39–the same age I am now as I type this. He was left paralyzed on one side. A doctor picked his hand off the bed, dropped it, and said, “that’s as good as you will ever get” for mobility. My dad said “hell no,” and my aunts and uncles worked to get him in to TIRR Memorial Hermann (back when it was just TIRR), so he was able to walk again.

I was 30 when dad had his FIRST heart attack, in 2006.

I was 35 when the nurse asked, “does the family want to see him,” after his last heart attack, and I went and looked, and knew my mother and sister couldn’t see him that way, gauze in his nose and evidence of attempts to resuscitate that were only necessary because it was necessary to be pronounced dead in a hospital and not at home, because we don’t want him cut open and his organs weighed, in a goddamn morgue miles from home.

Now I’m 39, the same age as when dad had his stroke and I have to ask myself:

“Why shouldn’t my dad’s name be up there? When my friend Butch dies, who has diabetes and a bunch of other medical conditions tied to Agent Orange, I wonder, ‘Vietnam will have essentially killed Butch, too. Shouldn’t his name be up there?'”

My dad would probably say “no,” in a very loud voice. I don’t think he saw his service as being as the same as the guys on the front lines, but it was. I have the photos to prove he saw “the shit” while he was over there. And, I believe he was also shot and wounded (he told my mother this, siblings remember him coming back having had a wound–I’ve only been looking for the records since 2012, but I digress).

I also suspect, in South Texas in the late 1960s, the Army recruiters were telling 17-year-old kids like my dad things like, “if you volunteer, we will send you up to Fort Hood and you will stay stateside. But if you get drafted, you are going to ‘Nam.”

My father volunteered for the Army. The Army volunteered him for Vietnam.

And all this brings me back to Agent Orange.

Getting shot and dying in combat thousands of miles from home is hell. Having a limb ripped off by a land mine is hell. But, having your body destroyed from the inside out because of things your own government now freely admits it exposed you to (and sent you a monthly check to compensate for that), becoming paralyzed at the prime of your life, and dying well before average life expectancy for an American Male, is a SLOW HELL.

My dad made that slow hell look like a great roller coaster ride, but that’s my dad. We went to Mount Rushmore the summer after that stroke. He still successfully operated four dry cleaners and added to that number over the years until his retirement in the early 2000s, became president of the Mineola Kiwanis Club, started a second business that is still going today, and lived his life. But, he had pains, and broken bones over the years because of balance issues and his limp. His was not by any means a pain free life, but he enjoyed living it.

And, this time of year I start to wonder: maybe the guys like my dad who died that slow hell due to Agent Orange need a memorial, too. But, I don’t think we put them on the one we already had. Dad had a friend on that wall, so I think that’s what he’d say, and I’ll side with that.

Happy Memorial Day to Richard Leibowitz, U.S. Army.