58, 260 is the official number of US soldiers, sailors and airmen who died or who are still listed as missing and presumed dead as a result of hostilities in Vietnam. There are an additional 303, 644 who were wounded including over 74,000 quadriplegics or multiple amputees. Surely, some of these wounded warriors have died as a result of these wounds over the last forty years, but are not counted in the “official” totals. In addition, what we don’t know, at least with certainty, is how many of the estimated 1.5 million who returned with post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) have succumbed to problems arising from this misunderstood psychological disorder. We do know that Viet vets are at substantially at greater risk to take their own lives. Various studies have pegged the incidence of suicide from 1.7 times to 7 times to that of the non-veteran population. Although our use of Agent Orange to defoliate the jungles of south east Asia is well documented, and we know that there is a direct relationship to at least three types of cancer, and indirect evidence or a causal relationship with many other life threatening diseases, we cannot say with accuracy how many of our veterans were doomed to a subsequent death by our use of this now-banned toxic defoliant.
There is even a far murkier picture when we consider those of our sons and daughters who returned from service in Vietnam, wounded or not, with alcohol or drug dependencies or addictions. This, too, has been the subject of much study and comment, but there is little fact documented about how these addictions affected later life and death. One bit of data that has been reported from multiple sources is that approximately fifteen percent of the three million veterans of Vietnam service used heroin at some point in their service there. I can do the math. That would be 450,000 soldiers sniffing, snorting, shooting up, or otherwise ingesting one of the hardest of hard drugs trying to get through their days in the jungle. I believe it’s safe to say that some did not leave this behavior behind when they came home. I believe it’s also safe to say that more than a few have died…..not from the bullets or mortar shells that killed so many, but from dope and booze and other directly related maladies. My brother, Craig, was one of those.
Craig was a little over five years younger than me. The age gap insured that we had little to do with one another growing up. Whenever he was allowed into my sphere of influence, it was either because I wanted him to do something for me or I wanted to get some pleasure from tormenting him. As the years passed, we grew even further apart; often not communicating for long periods. I went to college and married and went into the Army. He struggled at school, married as an obligation of an unwanted pregnancy, and joined the Marines to avoid the responsibilities he was unprepared to deal with. His child was born and his divorce papers served while he was with the 3rd Marine division “in country”.
In an uncharacteristic moment of guilt (he was a radioman with a Marine infantry unit and I was an AG officer and systems analyst in the Army) I considered volunteering for Vietnam which would have precluded his service there. At the time, two brothers did not have to be in country at the same time. With a severe upbraiding from my darling wife, I returned to my senses and stayed at Ft. Hood while Craig went to Da Nang and on to Khe Sahn. I don’t know for sure what Craig did in Vietnam other than dope and booze, but I know he did plenty of that. I know that he humped a radio and an M16 for thirteen months. And somehow, he survived. He returned home and entered a long, uneven, downward spiral that included two other marriages and divorces, three other children, more booze and more drugs. It was as if his small bit in the war had defeated him and robbed him of any motivation to live a life “in the world”. Ultimately cirrhosis of the liver and Hepatitus C became dominating factors in his life. He had, I think, brief periods of happiness, but the dope and the booze were his constant companions.
Oddly, the only closeness I ever had with Craig occurred as he neared death. Perhaps it was because we had in common the death of our parents and his struggle, and partial success, in finding sobriety and a measure of normality in what had been a turbulent and largely unfulfilling life. In fact, he had become a counselor for others with the same dependencies that had plagued his own life. When word came that his name had been approved for a liver transplant, he showed a spark of hope that was soon to be painfully dashed when it became apparent that his weakened body would not recover from the surgery.
I visited him several times in the two months that he was in hospital and we were able to talk about our past lives, our parents and our children. I asked him, on one occasion, if he thought he would have still been an alcoholic and drug dependent if he hadn’t gone to Vietnam. He said that he honestly didn’t know, but that he was fairly sure that he would not have been able to survive Vietnam without the booze and the dope. He said on another occasion that it might have been better if he had been shot and killed while he was there.
Yes, I know that many others served and returned to live productive lives while he did not. Perhaps he didn’t have the strength or intelligence to do so, but I can’t escape the feeling that he, as well as many others, was a latent, unreported casualty of the war. He, and those like him, may not have been killed by a bullet, bomb or artillery shell, but they were killed just as certainly by the war. They are not included in the casualty totals except by their loved ones, and their names will not be found on The Wall. The effects of this war, all wars, do not end when the soldiers leave the battlefield. For some, another, more private, battle has only begun.