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In Memoriam

May 27, 2013

In 1968, my older brother Dennis, the brilliant golden boy of the family, was drafted into the Army and shipped off to Vietnam.

There, one evening, his platoon was ambushed by a superior force of North Vietnamese regulars.  Dennis was the platoon’s Forward Air Controller; the guy who would call in air or artillery support when things got hot – with 40 pounds of radio gear and a 6-foot whip antenna on his back, he was a prime target.

The platoon’s Lieutenant and its NCO were killed almost immediately.  Dennis was unable to raise a response on his radio, so he struggled up a ridge to an exposed position, where he hoped to get a stronger signal. Then a grenade disabled his radio entirely and blew his carbine out of his hand.  Bleeding, disoriented and defenseless, he crawled deep into a thicket as his platoon was overrun.  When the firefight was over, he listened as the North Vietnamese swept the area, finishing off the wounded.

The next morning, when airborne troops arrived, only Dennis and two other soldiers were still alive.

Dennis was evacuated to Okinawa, where his wounds were patched up.  But there was a deeper wound that never healed.

The Army awarded Dennis a Purple Heart, then shipped him back to Vietnam, where he quickly descended into madness, which he medicated with opium and heroin.  Caught in the act, he was shipped back to the Okinawa, where Army doctors diagnosed him with schizophrenia and subjected him to electroshock therapy and massive doses of Thorazine.  Then he was brought back stateside, where he was imprisoned, awaiting court martial.

Shortly after he arrived, I drove with my mother to San Francisco, where Dennis was held in a Civil War-era dungeon at the Presidio. His cell had rough rock walls, rusty iron bars and a tiny cot.  There were no windows, just a 40-watt bulb for illumination.

I don’t recall how I persuaded the Army to release Dennis.  Frankly, I think they were more than happy to be rid of him.  The court martial was forgotten and he was promptly discharged.

My parents were, for whatever reason, unable to cope with the reality of what Dennis had become and so, by default, I took over, dropping out of college to devote myself full-time to his care.  I reached out to the Veteran’s Administration, but their only answer was to institutionalize Dennis and pump him full of zombie drugs, which Dennis, quite naturally, fiercely resisted.

The next year was hell.  I spent most of  my time trying to keep my brother away from drugs and alcohol – even, in one instance, threatening one of his drug suppliers at gun point.   Dennis drove one car sixty feet down a cliff and another into someone’s living room. We stayed awake many nights, talking endlessly, hoping to find the key that would free him from madness.

But there was no key.  Dennis spiraled further and further into insanity and he was taking me with him.

Dennis had a girlfriend, who confided in me that he had begun to abuse her and that she feared for her life.  So I provided her with a one-way ticket to Minneapolis, where she had family.  Soon after she arrived, she called Dennis to tell him what I had done.  When he got off the phone, things came to a head.

Somehow, Dennis had gotten himself a powerful hunting rifle, which he secreted in a closet.  After a brief bout of screaming and threats, he went into his bedroom.  When I followed him, he leveled the rifle at my forehead, with his finger on the trigger.

“Go ahead, Dennis,” I sighed, “I’m tired.”

He was crazier than I’d ever seen him. I was certain he would kill me, but at that point I was so wrung out that I almost welcomed the release.

Then, all of a sudden, a profound sadness flickered in his eyes.

Somehow, I knew what he would do next and I lunged for the rifle.

But he was too quick; in a lightning-fast motion, he reversed the rifle, put the muzzle to his forehead and pulled the trigger.

It took him some minutes to die.  There was nothing I could do but hold his hand.

Every Memorial Day, I remember the golden boy who went off to war and the ghost who came back and the year of hell and those very last moments.

Dennis was a hero; he exposed himself to enemy fire trying to save his comrades.  What happened to him after that was no shame, it was a tragedy.

Not every hero dies on the battlefield.  Some bring the battle home with them.

They all deserve our remembrance.

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  1. Jackson permalink

    Ken, I don’t think you ever shared this story with Sara or me. Thanks for telling it so thoughtfully for everyone. It sounds like your brother was a true hero.

  2. Rico_Pilgrim permalink

    Stunning. Deserves treatment as a novel or screen-play if you could bear to write it.

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