Monday, May 28, 2012

In Memoriam

I suppose it's a little odd that I grieve my late brother on Memorial Day rather than on his birthday, or the date of his death or funeral. After all, he did not die in battle, at least not directly. I believe that his multiple tours of duty in Viet Nam did contribute to his death, but I have no direct proof of that. You see, my brother died of complications of early-onset Alzheimer's and his doctors did speculate that the chemical exposure he had during those years certainly could have had an effect, especially with respect to the speed of his decline. My mother, who was his legal guardian at the time of his death refused an autopsy because of her own religious beliefs, so we can't know.

I do know, however, that his experience at war did affect the last years of his life profoundly. He had enlisted in the Sea Bees in the hopes that he wouldn't get sent into the battle zone. Foolish young man that he was, he didn't realize that construction would be required even on the battle field. He and his unit spent a great deal of time building, and rebuilding, and rebuilding Da Nang's air strip. And he did so without all the accouterments of battle. His main protection was a side-arm, either a .45 or a 9 mm semi-automatic. That isn't much in a war.

And this wasn't a traditional war. It was our first real experience with what is now called asymmetrical warfare. It wasn't easy to identify the enemy. It often was a villager who had been friendly the day before who led an attack on the men trying to grade for concrete laying. Or, even more horrific, a child carrying a live grenade racing toward them. Sometimes it was US airplanes who missed their targets and dropped munitions dangerously close to them. Some exploded. Some didn't.

He never spoke of any of this to us, not while it was going on, not while he was posted in "safer" locales, not while he ended his 25 year career in California with his family. But the memories surfaced when his Alzheimer's accelerated, making the last two years of his life hell. At first they were nightmares from which he would awaken screaming about being attacked or being bombed. Then the nightmares took over his waking life and he re-enacted them over and over until my mother couldn't restrain him. She finally had to place him in the same Alzheimer's care facility that she had placed my father in just a few years before.

I remember speaking to him by telephone and trying to reassure him that he would not be going to hell for killing that child with the hand grenade, that he would be forgiven, that he was forgiven. After that conversation I cried for hours, even as I am crying right now. That decent young man, who loved children, who had more baby sitting jobs than I ever had, suffered horribly.

And that's what war does to young men, and now young women as well. AP had an astounding article about the veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and what they're bringing home with them:

A staggering 45 percent of the 1.6 million veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now seeking compensation for injuries they say are service-related. That is more than double the estimate of 21 percent who filed such claims after the Gulf War in the early 1990s, top government officials told The Associated Press.

This includes amputations, internal injuries, head injuries, and, yes, PTSD. The VA is simply not equipped to deal with those numbers and those numbers will only increase as time goes on. How will we, as a society, deal with that consequence of war? Will we simply forget about them until the next veteran commits suicide or kills someone else? How will their families deal with them now, broken in body and spirit?

This is what war does.

At least my brother's suffering is over. That is cold comfort today.

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Anonymous Marcellina said...

Thank you. I have forwarded this.

3:34 AM  
Blogger Conni said...

Hugs to you.

Beautifully written.

5:37 AM  
Blogger Florence said...

Dear Diane, I am so sorry about your brother. My husband and two of his brothers are VietNam veterans. The older I get, the more senseless war becomes to me.

6:09 AM  
Blogger John Gardner said...

It was tragic, that is true. These family incidences of Alzheimers, seeing what it did to Grandpa and Uncle, have made the "big A" one of my greatest fears for the future.

9:13 PM  

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