Thursday, November 10, 2011

Living with Parkinson's: What are you doing on Veteran's day

Living with Parkinson's: What are you doing on Veteran's day:

A Short Story by David L. Dyer
November 6, 2011
My wife, Janet gave me a present for my birthday recently.  Yes it is something to wear.  A half smile accompanied the tears that rolled down my face as I stared at the numbers that were engraved on the beautiful bracelet she placed on my wrist.  Those numbers read 58267.  This number represents the total number of names inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC.  I understand that it took until the year of 2010 for the final names to be posted so we must accept that total as accurate.  I often wonder why it took so long to do so little for those who gave so much. The year 2010 would have been some 35 years after the last American was killed in Vietnam.  I do have an idea of something that could still be done and will get to that later.
As another Veteran's Day approaches, what are your plans for that day?  Will you go to a party or hosp one?  How about a parade?  On Veteran's day you don't have to go very far to see one or to even join one.  Maybe you'll just enjoy the day off work that so many of you will be getting.  Whatever it may be how about adding something to it that really make you feel good.  Before your day begins give yourself one minute of silence in honor of those 58,267 young men and women that gave their lives.  You will be surprised at the extra energy you will have created for yourself.  Now I'll tell you a little about myself and how it is I feel that I have a right to be asking these questions and to be writing about this very serious subject.
In August of 2007 I was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease at the age of 68.  When my brother Wayne heard that news he was devastated.  He also seemed to sense that there was something I've been holding back that was much deeper than Parkinson's.  He then sent me a tape he had made with his publisher, Louise Hay.  On this tape were nine simple words that were formed into a sentence.  Without a doubt it was those words that would entirely change my life.  That sentence reads as follows:  "Do not die with your music still in you."

I had always avoided talking about Vietnam simply because there was nothing pleasant about it to talk about.  That reasoning may have been my way of avoiding any conversations that had to do with my experiences since I just couldn't bring myself to talk about them without welling up.  I would just revert to my comfort zone which was my daily six pack.

After hearing those words from Wayne and realizing that I now had this incurable disease and I was almost 69 years old I began thinking about my Mother who would soon be turning 92.  She was living in an assisted living home in Florida and with me being in Michigan the chances of us ever seeing each other again were becoming very remote.  I listened to that tape once again and when those nine words again came to fore I immediately began taking action.

That very evening I told Janet and my son David-Scott my Vietnam story and of the memories and nightmares that have haunted me for the past 37 years.  I then wrote the story and as Wayne suggested I began talking about it whenever I could.  I began feeling much better.  I wrote this in part a year ago in a story "A Pittance of Time," and will tell it in part again here.

While in the Army as a career soldier I was stationed in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971.  I was assigned to the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku, RVN.  This was located along the Cambodian Border.  As a medical record specialist I was in charge of the admission and disposition of patients and believe me I saw much more than my share of blood and guts.  Most of the patients were brought in to us directly from the battlefields or jungles by either ambulance or chopper.  At times they were received in body bags.  Our job was to admit the patients and initiate their medical record by placing a wrist band on them.  We would then interview them and obtain as much personal information as possible.  There were times that I was the first person they remembered talking to after being wounded.  On more than one occasion I was asked to "Please don't tell my wife."  One of the most difficult tasks that had to be done was searching through the clothing of the DOA's (dead on arrival) to secure any valuables they may have had on their person.  This included looking through their wallets and viewing photos of their family members.

As my year in Vietnam was coming to an end I was talked into extending for six months.  This of course was my own decision.  I was pretty well convinced that the war was winding down and that was obvious by the reduction in the number of casualties we received.  We were in the process of turning the hospital over to the ARVN's and the thought of a 30 day non chargeable leave won my over.  When I returned to Vietnam most of our personnel had been reassigned or sent home.  We had been reduced to a 30 bed inpatient Medical Detachment. 

It was just a couple of days later that we were hit with a mass casualty that I never thought we would live through.  I wrote about that in my Vietnam story and will not repeat it here.  What I had not written about was what happened the day prior to that mass casualty.  Our Dust-off unit which was our helicopter support was called to retrieve what turned out to be the most sickening sight I have ever encountered.  When the subject of horrors of war come up there couldn't possibly be anything more shocking than what we saw as we put on gas masks to relieve the stench while we began removing body parts of three Americans that had been executed, dismembered and stuffed into one body bag and left for the animals.  We could not identify them.  We recorded them as unknown.  That night came the mass casualty.  There was no time for mourning in Vietnam.  My time to cry came many years after leaving Vietnam

It was three years ago that my son David-Scott and I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC.  That was absolutely the most moving experience of my life.  I would suggest that anyone who was drafted during the Vietnam era to visit that memorial and while there recite this modified version of this adage in prayer:  "There but for the grace of God, went I."

While I was there I stared at the wall.  All I could see were names and numbers.  I closed my eyes and then I began seeing faces.  Yes they al had faces thirty seven years ago.  I began seeing young men on gurneys lined up in the emergency room.  I began seeing young men in body bags.  I began seeing young men on Psychiatric wards.  I saw one with a self inflicted gunshot wound completely through his head.  I finally saw the 22 year old burn patient who died in my hands while crying out for his mother with his final breath.  Yes, they all had faces all 58,267 of them.  I know, I not only saw them, I touched them.  I touched countless numbers of them.

It was then and there at "the wall" that I vowed to and did give up alcohol, which was a lifelong crutch for me.  I did so not only for myself but in honor of those 58,267 names inscribed on that wall.  The lack of alcohol in my system changed my sleeping habits.  I could not sleep at night.  I then began writing at the age of 69.  I began writing short stories about friends and relatives.  I was amazed at the quality of my writing and at times I would ask myself "who wrote this?"  Wayne has always said that I have always had this ability within me, but it must have been covered by my lifelong alcohol consumption.

Yes the nightmares have somewhat ceased since I began writing and talking about my Vietnam experiences.  I do continue to have moments at times.  A good example of those "moments" would be as I quote once again from "A Pittance of Time."  "My wife and I recently attended a Michigan State football game.  Just prior to the kick-off the MSU Marching Band played one of the most beautiful versions of our National Anthem I have ever heard.  Prior to the last stanza they paused for a few seconds.  My eyes were fixed on those Stars and Stripes.  It didn't take long for my thoughts to put me back in Vietnam.  That "moment" found me cringing as  approached this baby faced 22 year old whom I swear didn't appear to be a day past seventeen.  Now what could possibly be pleasant about placing death tags on his right toe and left thumb?

As I've said all those names on that memorial did have faces some forty plus years ago.  I said at the beginning of this story that something could be done to brighten those walls.  Do you think that 58,267 photos could be added.  It might take another 35 years or so but I'm sure those walls could be expanded.

If I haven't reached you yet, I will guarantee you that the rest of this story will at a minimum create a welling in your eyes.  If it fails to do so then we just haven't connected..  Please read through it slowly and grasp each word.


It is now late at night and Veteran's Day is coming to a close.  I hope you enjoyed your party, parade or whatever it was you did today.  Do you remember how it began?  Do you remember giving that moment of silence this morning?  I'm going to ask you to do that once again, but first I'd like to mention a couple of things.  When that number of 58,267 is broken down some rather startling statistics are revealed.  39,996 of them were 22 years old or younger.  12 of them were only 17 years old.  5 of them were only 16 years old and one of them was only 15.  997 of them were killed on their first day in Vietnam.  1,448 of them were killed on their last day in Vietnam.  There were 244 award presentations of the Medal of Honor.  153 of those names are on that wall. 

Yes, it is late at night and Veteran's Day is coming to a close.  It is now time to give that last moment of silence.  This time please close your eyes and put all of your thoughts on those 58,267 young men and women that gave their lives so we could be here enjoying all of what we did today.  When the 60 seconds are over you might just want to blurt out these words.  "Thank you my friend, we miss you."


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