Gerard "Rod" Kane, 53, a veteran of the war in Vietnam whose searing experiences of jungle combat in the early months of the war became the subject of an acclaimed memoir published 25 years later, died Nov. 3 at Inova Fairfax Hospital. He died of pneumonia and had a hereditary lung disease.
Mr. Kane was the author of "Veterans Day: A Vietnam Memoir," published in 1990, a book that chronicled his bloody year in Vietnam in 1965 as a 19-year-old Army combat medic and the years of alcoholism, drug abuse, anger, despair, incarceration and hospitalization that followed.
He began writing his story in the early 1980s, after drunken driving arrests and thoughts of suicide led him to check himself into a Veterans Administration hospital, where he discovered that putting his story down on paper was a form of therapy that helped him confront the demons that continued to plague him. About this time, he began attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, and at his death, he had been sober for 17 years.
Mr. Kane, a resident of Chevy Chase, was born in Utica, N.Y., and joined the Army in 1964. The following year, as a medical corpsman with the 1st Air Cavalry Division, he was at the Ia Drang Valley, where U.S. helicopters first ferried large units of troops into combat and U.S. commanders became committed to a "war of attrition" with search-and-destroy missions as the primary tactic.
Mr. Kane, who became known in his unit as "Doc," would come to characterize Vietnam as "The World of Live Ammunition." He would write later, "I become like a zombie. I forget just about everything that happens except that Two-Tone gets it. Kelly gets it. Grub gets it. Dino gets it. I'm losing a grip on just about everything I'm living for. . . . I start to lose the dream of surviving so I could come back to that woman, a family. I started to sink into something like futility and despair."
When his enlistment was up, Mr. Kane became active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and he came to Washington in 1971 as part of a protest in which veterans threw down their military medals on the steps of the Capitol. He remained in Washington afterward, but he could not live down the Vietnam experience. "Nineteen years old and trying to decide who lives and who dies. . . . Part of my heart is still over there . . . part of my head, part of my life. I'm trying to bury it," he would say years later.
A network of friends helped support Mr. Kane in this period. When he fought with his housemates, they took him in. When he was broke, they lent him money or found him jobs. He was hard to get along with, and some of his friends gave up. But a few stayed with him. "I do have a lot of people taking care of me," Mr. Kane once said.
In 1977, a doctor diagnosed him with Alpha-one-antitrypsin deficiency, a rare hereditary condition that prevents the liver from producing a protein essential to proper lung functioning. Mr. Kane remembered the doctor telling him, "You drink, you smoke. You're done in three years." But he didn't care. "That's all I needed, I thought. Three years and I can get out of this sucker."
Not long after that, he got into a Vietnam veterans support group, which he said felt like home to him. He been writing down his thoughts, and he showed his writing to a counselor who encouraged him to continue. He stopped doing drugs and alcohol, entered a treatment program for his lung condition at the National Institutes of Health and went to college, graduating from the University of the District of Columbia. For eight years, he worked on his book.
In a review in The Washington Post's Book World, freelance writer Marc Leepson wrote that "Veterans Day" "involves telling a story that features a main character--who is, of course, Kane himself--who is in nearly constant and deep pain . . . an inspired piece of work. It is not a whiny, self-pitying cry for help. It is, rather, a provocatively written narrative that contains the details of one man's life."
In 1991, 20 months after publication of "Veterans Day," Mr. Kane underwent a lung transplant at Fairfax Hospital, the first such procedure in the Washington area. His disease by then had progressed to the point where walking was difficult and the simple act of lowering himself into a chair was painful.
He had been retired on disability in recent years, but he lectured regularly at American University and Northern Virginia Community College on literature of the Vietnam War.
He was a founding member of the Memorial Day Writers Project, an organization of Vietnam Veteran writers who since 1993 have gathered at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Veterans Day and Memorial Day to read their work.
Survivors include three brothers and a sister.