Veterans’ Ceremonies and my Uncle Bill by Sharon O’Donnell
Just got back from accompanying my middle son, age 16, to a Vietnam Veterans’ ceremony on the grounds of the North Carolina state capitol building on a beautiful sunny afternoon. David, my son, is taking a Lessons of Vietnam & Recent International Relations class at school, and his teacher encouraged his students to attend the ceremony in order to see history up close and personally. Of course, the teacher also offered some extra credit as an incentive. David has always been interested in history — it’s his favorite subject in school — so the extra credit is nice, but he would have wanted to attend anyway.
There are still 43 men from North Carolina categorized as Missing In Action from the Vietnam War. Many more from other states. Each man’s name was read along with his hometown and division of the service they were in. Then someone led a Missing Soldier Ceremony, consisting of focusing on a small, round table with various images that were symbolic: a plate with a slice of lemon to symbolize the bitter tears of loved ones, a rose to symbolize the undying love of those still awaiting news on their loved one’s fate; a red ribbon and a Bible symbolizing faith, and of course an empty chair symbolizing the person still missing. Very moving.
My son’s teacher attended also, and the veterans there seemed to know him well — which speaks highly of the teacher and his involvement: he’s been to such ceremonies often, although he himself was too young to fight in Vietnam.
There was also a moment of silence for the last WW1 veteran who recently died.
All of this really hits home because recently my family has found out some more information regarding my Uncle Bill, an 88-year-old WWII veteran. After serving in Leghorn, Italy in 1844 and 45, he came on a hospital ship – though he’d never served in combat, he had some physical injuries from his rigorous routine — and his family found out soon after that he also had suffered mentally while over there. He was nervous and irritated and withdrawn. He talked to himself and paced back and forth; he’d been quiet before the war but nothing like what he was when he returned.
My uncle’s parents (also parents to his 11 brothers and sisters, including my dad who was 2 years younger than Bill and the next to the youngest in the family) tried to get Uncle Bill help, but the evaluations said that his ‘nervous condition’ could not be directly attributed to the war.
Uncle Bill even left NC once and headed to Washington, saying he had to tell the President something he had seen. But a truck driver later found him at a gas station in Petersburg, VA, wandering around, and brought him back home. And there he stayed, watching TV and helping out in my grandfather’s sewing machine repair shop because he was not employable. He had no relationships, didn’t go anywhere, didn’t do anything.
My grandparents took care of him. In 1962, Uncle Bill became more irritated and upset, and once again testing was done on him through the Veteran’s Administration. Again, they said in an official letter that this could not be proven to be service-connected, despite letters from neighbors telling of the drastic change.
My grandparents gave up. My grandmother died soon after that, and Uncle Bill lived with my grandfather until my grandfather’s death in 1973 at the age of 91. My dad had been looking after them both for awhile and since then, he has been literally – his brother’s keeper, with he and my mother providing Uncle Billy money, meals, laundry service, and a job at the repair shop (although in the past eight years or so he hasn’t been able to help) — it does give him a place to go. He’s been a spectator of life since 1945.
My sister wrote letters to govt. officials in 1986, and ran into dead ends also. Last year, my brother and I got a VA official to request some records that we hadn’t known existed. I recently read through them and discovered a doctor’s evaluation of Uncle Bill in 1962 complete with interviews with my uncle and his obviously mentally disturbed answers — there were also records of his vomiting a lot when he first came home in ’45. We had never seen any of this and it was certainly enough to show that Uncle Bill had severe problems that he had not had prior to army officials inducting him into the service.
In another packet of material, I read some letters that I had not read before — letters that my Uncle wrote when he was in the service — letters to his mother and his youngest brother, Ben — letters that I could not imagine my Uncle Bill ever writing — it was like he was a different person.
And in that new info from the govt., I also read a letter from Uncle Bill’s mother — my grandmother — saying she couldn’t stand watching Bill every day with no improvement. She wrote, “I had hoped so hard.” I had never read this before, and it hit me hard; I could so identify with her as a mother — a mother who was desperate to have her son be okay again. It was gut-wrenching.
So now, my family and I set out yet again to try to get somebody from the govt. to say — that yes — it had been service connected. We want to do this for Uncle Bill — for our family — but I really want to do this foremost for my grandmother.