Donnell Proctor was a bright young man who went to war in the 1960's and came back - a drug addict.
His tour of duty in Vietnam ended in 1968, when he was wounded in the leg by flying sharpnel. But memories of nights spent underwater to avoid the enemy, of two comrades blown away as they walked behind him, of emaciated Cambodian women who trembled at the sight of him, lingered, his mother recalled yesterday.
For five years after his return to the states, he was on the verge of enrolling in a Veteran's Administration program for addicts, but always - at the last moment - he'd back out, his mother said. He continued using "the gamut" of drugs, from pills to heroin and cocaine, she said.
"He was ok until he went to Vietnam and got messed up on those drugs," said Proctor's father, Hurley J. Proctor Sr., yesterday after the funeral. "I guess it was just a useless war."
Donnell Proctor, 32, became one of more than 26,500 veterans who received federal help for drug problems last year. Another 97,000 Vietnam veterans were treated at veterans hospitals for alcoholism.
It wasn't until 1975, when he was picked up in Washington on a drug charge by police, that Proctor was finally forced to enroll in a federal drug rehabilitation program at the federal prison in Danbury, Conn. It was one of the best things that could have happened to him, his parents said yesterday.
He not only kicked his drug habit, but he also seemed to find inner peace and renewed spirtual belief. And he was helping other addicts at the prison to become rehabilitated, they said. He told family and friends he wanted to make it his career to help all the addicts he had gotten to know on the streets of Washington.
But last week, on the verge of shaking off once and for all the habit that had hounded him since Vietnam, Donnell Proctor was killed in a prison fire along with four other inmates. All five had been trapped in a locked area on the morning of July 7 when the fire - apparently the work of an arsonist - broke out.
Yesterday, Proctor was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery as an Army honor guard stood watch and a bugler sounded taps.
In 1966, he took off a semester from St. Benedict College - where he had received a four-year athletic scholarship - to take a job to pay for a car he wanted, his mother said. He was quickly drafted.
After basic training, he was assigned eventually to Camranh Bay in Vietnam and served as "point man," which meant his duty was to walk ahead of the other men in his unit during combat.
One day, "somehow, by the grace of God," his mother said, Proctor stepped over a mine without seeing it.Two men who were walking behind him triggered the mine and were killed.
"He told me he turned around to see one man's head blown off and the other man's ear blown off," his mother said.
Some of the men in the unit were captured by North Vietnamese troops after the blast, but Proctor escaped by driving into a patch of water nearby, where he ramained "a day and a night," according to his mother, and came up to the surface only to breathe.
This incident - which left him with a disability to his knees - was the one he talked about the host when he returned home, his family said.
"Donnell had never before seen the kinds of things he was subjected to in Vietnam. You know, he was also stationed on the Cambodian border and he'd talk about these old Cambodian women who'd just cringe when they saw a (U.S.) soldier . . . Donnell said he'd always smile at them and tell them to go past him so they wouldn't be afraid," Proctor's mother, Katherine, explained yesterday in the family's home in Landover.
A family friend described the Proctors as the epitome of "upward mobility for a black family." Proctor's mother is a broadcast analyst for the Federal Communications Commission and his father is a pharmaceutical specialist for a private firm.
When Proctor was young, his family lived in Northeast Washington near McKinley Technical High School. When he was a teen-ager, his family moved to a spacious, single family home on Tyrol Drive in Landover and Proctor was sent to a private military academy.
When Proctor returned from the service, his wife, from whom he was separated in 1972, was one of the first persons to notice a change in him. Before he left for the service he was, she recalled, "gregarious, always full of life. When he returned, his nerves were shot."
He knew "nobody here [in the U.S.] or there [in Vietnam] believed in that war . . . It bothered him a lot," she said.
The rest of the family noticed that Proctor - once a star basketball and football player - was uncharacteristically drowsy most of the time. When his wife confronted him about his drug use, he told her he was "a user, not an abuser," she recalled.
But his life said otherwise. He went from job to job, rooming house to rooming house. His parents would find him lurking about 14th and U Streets NW. Nevertheless, his mother recalled, "He was always kind (to his parents). He was always apologizing for the way he was."
A slew of petty charges built up against him until 1975, when he was sent to Danbury to serve a three-year sentence. There, "his life changed," his mother said.
In one of the last letters he wrote was to his friend Melvin Ladson, he wrote that because he was coming up for parole in August, he wanted Ladson's help in getting letters of recommendation for a job.
The letter ended, "May God bless you. I shall see you soon."