"Bo," he wrote to his wife in the diary he kept. "This is how my last days went. I love you forever, Hank."
There is no telling what Vietnam combat veteran Hank Brown saw that night as he hugged the shadows, pacing back and forth atop the grassy knoll outside his Prince George's County apartment in the muggy, predawn darkness. Only one thing is certain: he felt the enemy was near.
He wondered if they would try to take him alive. He was prepared to fight and, if it was ordained, he was more than prepared to die.
He most feared a frontal attack, and as in the past, herded his three children into the living room for the night, barricading the hallway with furniture and placing his wife Bettye on guard at the dining room table, a pot of boiling water and a steak knife at the ready. If she dozed off -- she often did -- he would splash cold water on her face, admonish her for being a lousy soldier, part the yellow curtains and stare off into the darkness that terrified him.
So it was that Wednesday night, May 14. He yanked Bettye out of bed at 11 p.m., breaking one of her fingernails, and dragged her and their groggy, pajama-clad children into the living room bunker. For three days and nights, he had kept his troops on round-the-clock alert; they were exhausted.
"That's a warning!" he shouted, hearing a backfire outside their basement apartment in a dingy, sprawling, yellow-brick complex in Riverdale called Coventry Park, full of Washington's suburban working class.
"You've got to get out of the house. Something is going to happen! Tonight!"
Bettye bundled the children into their green 1972 Maverick and fled to her mother's house in Baltimore.
Vietnam combat veteran Paul Karlsven, 29, was easing his Dodge Monaco police cruiser along Old Annapolis Road alone, occasionally stopping to shine his searchlight at the dancing shadows on the roadside when he took the dispatcher's call. It was 2:40 a.m.
A new Coventry Park resident, a 39-year-old white divorcee with three children, was hysterical, the dispatcher reported. A man had just banged on her door, begging to talk. She refused to open the door; he went downstairs. From her window, she could see a black male skulking about. It looked as if he might be trying to break into the apartment below her. Karlsven stomped the accelerator.
Within three minutes, the two combat veterans had faced off in the night, and Brown lay dying, at the bottom of the small rise he meant to defend, a knife in his hand, two .38-caliber slugs in his stomach, his face in the dirt. By midafternoon, he was dead. The downstairs apartment Brown was trying to get into was his own.
Brown's death -- a delayed casualty of a war that still haunts thousands of America's warriors years after officials slammed shut the history books -- is more than a passing tragedy of our time. It is the story of two men who took remarkably similar roads to the same war and different roads home -- the black veteran who was never the same after Vietnam, and the white veteran who became a cop and managed to get on with his life after the war.
Henry Franklin Brown Jr. was one of nine children raised by a steelworker and his wife, both refugees from Depression-era poverty and prejudice in rural South Carolina. In the early 1940s, his parents met in Conshohocken, Pa., population 10,195, a factory town 20 miles north of Philadelphia, and planted new roots in "Deer Hunter" country.
His father, Henry Brown Sr., 77, a World War II Army quartermaster, says he always "tried to teach the children to do the right thing," an ethic that Hank had trouble reconciling with being ordered to Vietnam.
"He didn't like the idea of being sent to kill people he didn't even know," says Hank's oldest sister, Lee Dixon, a customer relations specialist with a computer firm. The night before he left for Vietnam, Hank stayed at her house. "He was very upset," she recalls. "He said, 'We grew up in church and were taught, 'Thou shalt not kill.' He couldn't see the reasoning behind wars. He didn't want to go fight people he had nothing against, whose culture he didn't understand. But he said, 'I'll go because I have to.'"
Soon, he was ducking heavy incoming fire as a mortar crewman with the American Division. He spent his tour slogging through the lush jungles of the Central Highlands, dodging Vietcong ambushes half a world away from home.
Brown distinguished himself in combat, winning a Bronze Star for valor and two Purple Hearts, military records show. He was wounded twice in action.
The grenade that exploded near his head on May 26, 1969, made blood spurt from his ears and nose and left him with an incurable ringing in his ears, constant and nerve-racking. He watched his best friend die a few feet away. He'd been standing in a spot Brown had just left.
For that wound, and a thigh injury he received 10 days later, the Veterans Administration awarded him an $88-a-month disability check.
"The day after I was wounded, I woke up to find I was not myself emotionally," he later wrote in an unsteady hand to his senator, Richard S. Schweiker (R-Pa.). "I had trouble talking. I felt like a freak. I might have said 25 words in three days. I haven't been the same since Vietnam. If I had known this would happen to me, I would have tried to avoid going into the service. Can you help me?"
His family first noticed the change in Brown right after his discharge in November 1970 when he brought Bettye, his young wife, home to Conshohocken to meet the folks, brothers and sisters and his childhood friends. They packed into the Browns' three-story brick row house for the "Welcome Home Hank" party on East Hector Street. They all wanted to know what the war had been like.
After the guests left, they huddled in the kitchen and Hank told them how the Army did a "quick patch job" on his wounds and shipped him back to the front. Fragments of a second grenade ripped through him 10 days later. Only then was he sent home, he said bitterly.
He clenched his fists as he spoke; he'd never known what it was like to be a black man in a white man's world until Vietnam. He'd grown up in a largely white neighborhood devoid of racial antagonism; his parents hadn't prepared him for prejudice, the intense racial animosity and bitter confrontations he'd witnessed in Vietnam: bayonet fights between blacks and whites, fraggings, enmity, self-segregation. He'd learned to distrust the white man. He was cursing now, shattering the kitchen with words never before allowed inside the Brown home.
"What makes you feel like that?" asked a sister. "We weren't raised that way. What's changed you?"
"The things I've seen!" he snapped, stalking off to bed.
After 14 months stalking the Vietcong with the rugged 173rd Airborne Brigade, Paul Karlsven came home to College Park in May 1971 and threw his medals in the garbage. He hated the war, but he stayed away from anti-war demonstrations. He resented his protesting peers, fearing he'd "do something I'd be sorry for later."
The easy-going, second child born to a career Navy nuclear physicist, Karlsven was a rudderless juvenile prankster when he dropped out of Bladensburg Senior High School at 16. A year later, he joined the Army to get his youthful act together.
A Nick Nolte look-alike with blue eyes and sandy blond hair, descended from Norwegian farmers who migrated to Minnesota in the 1800s, Karlsven moved every few years with his father's Navy assignments: Albuquerque, San Diego, Las Vegas, Norfolk, Washington.
He made friends easily, never getting too close, a tactic, he supposes, that helped him survive Vietnam. As a soldier, he slept on the ground "with one eye open," pulled night ambush duty, bathed in streams and " lived like an animal."
Once he let down his guard and showered a Vietnamese child with candy and affection. Later, he found the boy dead, blown up by a booby trap he was trying to set for Karlsven's platoon. He learned to be suspicious of everyone; things were never as they seemed. "I considered everyone the enemy," he says.
He got nicked with shrapnel, but never put in for a purple heart. His feet still itch from "jungle rot," the result of wading through rice paddies and never having time to let his boots dry out.
The first time he shot an enemy soldier, he got nauseated and his knees wobbled. Later, it got easier. "I never thought about it too much," he recalls, with a shrug. "But that's a segment of my life that's over and done with."
Back from Vietnam two months, he married his fiance, Sara, an insurance agent. His nightmares evaporated after a while, though he shoved her to the ground at a Rolling Stones concert when a cherry bomb exploded. Otherwise, he says he has readjusted just fine.
Four years ago, he quit a secure, $6.50-an-hour meatcutter's job with Giant Food to become a Prince George's County cop. He wanted a challenge, the adrenaline edge he hadn't felt since Vietnam. There were only so many ways a man could carve prime rib. "I just got tired of seeing what went on in the streets without being able to do anything about it," he says.
"Nobody wants to shoot anyone," he said in an interview, referring to his encounter with Brown. "But I don't feel guilty. Guilt is something you feel when you've done something wrong. I took the action I did to stay alive. I had to do what I had to do."
Home from the war, Brown rented a small house in Conshohocken on East Hector Street, found work as a machinist cranking out window frames for prefabricated homes and began to raise his own family. At the end of a day, he felt exhausted, "like I've worked a day and a half," he told his wife. Loud noises frightened him. He couldn't forget Vietnam. "I heard the war stories every day," says his wife. But, save for the nightmares and the nerves, he was getting along.
His hometown doctor, Patrick Castellano, detected Brown's nervousness in 1971. Castellano wasn't surprised. "I'd seen too many who went away to war and came back not right emotionally," he said.
Brown kept slowly disintegrating. He thought people were trying to harm him and his family. He rarely slept at night, and threw out the knives and baseball bats he kept beneath the bed for protection only after his wife threatened to leave him.
He was "losing his sense of reality" by the time he checked into nearby Coatesville VA Hospital in 1977, said Castellano. The longer he stayed, the more paranoid he became. He scrawled his fears in the diary, dispatches from the front:
"To protect myself, I do not sleep at night. I want to see my enemy face to face. I want to fight a good battle . . .
"I will not die without a fight. They will pay dearly for my life, whether I am here to know the price they paid or not."
He checked out of Coatesville against medical advice, "to conserve what sanity I had left," he told his wife. Armed with a bottle of Thorazine, a powerful tranquilizer that kept the demons in check, he went home, but not back to work. The medication made him drowsy. He feared falling asleep at the machine, having his fingers chewed off.
Brown's wife quit her job as a psychiatric assistant at a nearby mental hospital to stay with Hank and the kids. That hurt Brown's pride. He vowed to find work and began rounding up stray dogs for the Humane Society. He quit -- he hated putting the dogs to sleep. The family started living off Social Security disability, his VA disability check, his wife's public assistance allotment, $972 a month in all.
His VA check was limited to $88-a-month, 20 percent disability for the two wounds received in Vietnam. A VA appeals board denied his claim that the paranoid schizephrenia, diagnosed by psychiatrists at the Coatesville VA Hospital in 1977, seven years after his tour in Vietnam, was a war-related injury for which he should be compensated. VA policy only recognizes emotional problems as service connected if diagnosed within one year of discharge. VA examiners dismissed Dr. Castellano's observations within that time frames as irrelevant, government records show. Brown shrugged it off.
Brown moved the family to Riverdale in 1977, to be near an understanding older brother, Carl Groves, a Navy Department researcher, and his wife Mary. He'd spent high school summers living with them, busing dishes at the nearby pancake house for pocket money. Often talking long into the night, he warned Mary Groves about the impending attack.
At home, Brown and his wife fought. At times, he hit her. Once, she scooped up the kids and drove to her mother's. Brown followed her to Baltimore and tried to jump off a bridge. Police rescued him.
He checked into Springfield State Hospital in Sykesville for 52 days. He longed to escape, and chronicled his agony in the small, wide-lined notebook, the diary he'd begun at Coatesville. Hank Brown was his own Bos well. He had soul, insight into his sorrow. He was afraid to laugh because people might think it was the laugh of a crazy person.
He titled the diary, "The Long Walk," and dedicated the pain and loneliness inside to his devoted wife. She discovered the diary after Hank died, squirreled away in a closet inside a green suitcase, amidst the war medals and the shiny Americal souvenir knife he kept mounted on a red velvet plaque.
"Which road do I take and where will each lead me. Death on the one hand, running on the other. What a choice! Only the fact that I'm sure I can take my own life keeps me sane. Why do people assume someone unafraid of death must have a personality defect?"
He was obsessed with death.
"Death, I continue to await your coming, do not tarry long. There is no justice in this land. . .
"Only taking my own life, along with my written words, will clear my name.
But my love of my wife and kids keeps my hands in check."
He entertained only two options: suicide or escape.
"Escape or die. All I can think of is escape. But escape to what? A life of running, hiding and looking over my shoulder?"
He dubbed the escape plan. "Operation Show Your Hand." He began casing the hospital's linoleum halls and saving towards the $15 he figured would be enough to buy a bus ticket home.
"Today, they moved me to another ward. It's more spacious and there's less security, but I still feel locked up.The loneliness is becoming more unbearable with each passing day.
"How long can I go on this way before I become totally feelingless? I grow colder towards myself every day. People have commented on my outward calm, but within, I am like a volcano, ready to erupt."
He dreaded the slow-motion days. The only things he could look forward to: breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the "infrequent" visists from his wife. But nights were worse.
"One hour till bedtime. It's almost like Vietnam. I can't wait till dark and when dark comes, I can't wait till it's light. I was wounded at night, in my sleep, and ever since I've become terribly paranoid at night . . .
"I do not fear the end, although I feel its nearness. I lived through Vietnam, but my chances of coming out of this alive are almost nil."
After he was released from Springfield, he knew he was still sick. But he tried to lick it through exercise, nutrition. He played basketball daily, mixing it up with boys half his age. He ran for miles, pedaled a stationary bicycle for hours, pumped iron, practiced yoga, immersed himself in self-improvement. He eliminated sugar from his diet. He plowed through books on ESP and mind control. The day before he died, he purchased the National Enquirer as an elixer. The cover story: "Brainpower: How to Use It!"
But there was always the contradiction between his outward ambition -- the gung-ho optimism -- and his inward fatalism. He dreamed of a job as a NASA engineer, pondered opening his own television repair shop. He stayed up much of the night poring over wiring diagrams and electronics texts. He studied to become an electronics technician on the GI Bill.
Instructors at TESST Electronics in Hyattsville say he had as promising a future as any student they'd ever seen. Hank had finished half the coursework in solid state engineering with an A average, one of the top four students out of a class of 40 when he dropped out last fall to reenter the VA Hospital in Washington.
"If he'd finished with those grades, he would have had no trouble getting a job with IBM, Motorola, Xerox, you name it," said instructor Michael Bochnak, a communications specialist with Motorola.
At the school picnic, he introduced Bochnak to Bettye and the children. "They are why I'm going to school and working so hard," Bochnak recalls him saying with pride.
"I never knew anyone who tried so hard," echoes his wife.
He pushed his three children hard, too, rewarding every A with $1, Bs with 50 cents and Cs with nothing. He still owed his 8-year-old daughter, Tina, a third-grader at Templeton Elementary, $10.50 for her last report card. He gave his son soldiers to play with and ended up playing with them himself.
He taught them to mind their elders and obey the law. Indeed, when a police officer knocked on the door to apartment 101 last February, Brown bought two $5 tickets to the variety show benefit for the Prince George's County Fraternal Order of Police. He had never been in trouble with the law.
The day before he was shot, Hank knocked on the door of his sister-in-law, Mary Groves. "Something is going to happen to me," he said. "When it does, you've got to investigate it. Don't leave a stone unturned."
She didn't understand; nor did his wife.
"Bettye, why don't you believe me? Why doesn't anyone believe me? But then again, would you believe a mud man? I guess that's what they consider me."
Brown hadn't eaten or slept in days. Food made him drowsy. He wanted to stay alert. He paced about the apartment, keeping Bettye up for three all-night vigils. She couldn't take it anymore. At 7:30 a.m. that Wednesday morning, she drove him to VA Hospital's mental health clinic on Irving Street. Carl and Mary Groves came along.
Brown felt hopeless, he confessed in the car. But he refused to go inside.
"I go to the hospital, I get better. I get out and get down again. No one can help me."
Finally, after two hours in the car, he signed in, but got restless and walked out. They drove him to Prince George's County Mental Health Clinic in Bladensburg. He stalled again, sitting down finally with Helen McAllister, a psychologist who recommended he be hospitalized, according to Bettye Brown. Hank refused to check in.
As a last resort, the psychologist advised the family to find a judge to sign an emergency petition, ordering Brown into the county hospital's psychiatric ward for 96 hours, says his wife. That was the only way he could be treated.
Desperate, the two women left Hank with his brother and raced to the chambers of Prince George's County District Court Judge Irving H. Fisher, a retired Air Force legal officer. On the petition, his wife stated her reasons for the request: "paranoia, disabled Vietnam veteran, fears people are after him. Suicidal tendencies. Fears he'll hurt himself or others."
Brown was carrying a steak knife in his pocket, Bettye told the judge. Had he actually assulted anyone yet? asked Fisher. Not yet, said his wife.
"Denied," scrawled Fisher on the bottom of the petition. It was 2:15 p.m.
"Normally, I don't tend to reject such petitions," said Judge Fisher, "very distressed" after being informed that Brown had died hours after the request was denied. He estimated that in his four years on the bench, he has rejected "maybe 10 percent" of the 100 or so emergency petitions that have come before him.
Ordering someone hospitalized on the basis of a third party's statements "denies another person of serious constitional rights," said Fisher. The law requires the petitioner show that the potential mental patient is in "imminent danger to himself or others.
"Technically, the case did not qualify. But if I had had any inkling . . . any idea how serious it was," he would have signed the order in an instant, he said. "My views are to be liberal to avert a potential disaster. I take my responsibilities very seriously. I do the best I can."
That night, Bettye Brown left her agitated husband and drove off with the children. Carl Groves checked on his brother and found him locked out of his apartment. Mary Groves called the police. "My brother-in-law is reliving the war," she said. "He doesn't hardly know what he's doing. It there anything you can do?"
"Absolutely nothihg," said the officer.
He fantasized about joining a cadre of fellow Vietnam combat veterans, alienated and angry; they would strap on grenades, put their M-16s on rock and roll (automatic) and pour into the streets.
"Enacting change through violence -- not against the people, but against the system that sent us to Vietnam and has bullshitted us since we returned -- is the only way veterans will get their due.
"Maybe I should have gone to Canada with the smart guys and not served my country with -- how do most Americans call us -- fools?
". . . If it's war they want, it's war they will get. To hell with the good guy attitude. I've pushed almost all fear about death aside. I will never live in prison. The God of truth, love and courage is on my side.
"Let me go to the grave as the man I know I am. I will either die fighting, or kill myself . . .
"Live free or die!"
"How ya doing?" asked Karlsven. He shone his flashlight at Brown and caught a "wild look" about the eyes. Brown was standing outside his apartment door. He started moving towards Karlsven. The cop tensed.
"Hold it right there! he ordered.
"Why should I?" growled Brown, tackling the cop. They rolled over and over, down the dewy embankment. The cop outweighed his assailant by 40 pounds; he swung his nightstick again and again, but he couldn't stop Brown's ferocious attack. Karlsven was on his back now, kicking out as Brown drew a steak knife and began slashing at his feet.
He scrambled up. Brown lashed out again, slicing into the cop's left arm, a small cut that would later require one stitch just above his tatoo, "Airborne." The cop was frightened. He thought the stranger was trying to kill him.
He drew his gun and fired twice at nearly point-blank range. Brown groaned and rolled down the hill, his blood ebbing out on the path his children took to school.
Surgeons at Prince George's General Hospital fought to save Brown's life, but the bullets had ripped through the intestines, a kidney, the vena cava, severing the main artery in the stomach. They couldn't stop the bleeding.
Bo, if you are reading this book, I am no longer among the living. You should know that I want to be where I am rather than (the hospital). Don't sorrow for the dead. Have sorrow for the living, for they are still going through their problems.
"Don't blame yourself, it was my doing. Everything is my fault, so put the blame in the coffin and close the lid. One good thing about being dead is that I can talk without you interrupting. Ha, ha.
"I love you, Bo. This is just one big love letter to you. To help you understand the man you (were) married to. At last now I know the truth."
Bettye Brown sat on a couch in the basement apartment, pulling out memories from the closet. Her daughter, Tyesheia, 3, rolled around in a green sun dress with a Donald Duck doll. She showed the visitor the medals, the scrapbooks, the condolence cards from the Army Chief of Staff, anotherr from the Army Ladies of Arlington. She pulled out the flag, presented at graveside at Arlington National Cemetery, where Hank was buried with three rifle volleys May 20, a gray, rainy day.
"We were best friends," said the widow who mourned her soldier. "We did everything together."
There was an aura of peace about her. In a strange way, she felt relieved, she said.
"At last, the war is over for him."
EPILOGUE: As the sun came up, Karlsven sat huddled in the Forestville station house, waiting to make his statement to a homicide detective. His lawyer, Sam Sperio, was confidentf; it sounded like a "good shooting," homocide vernacular for self-defense. Within two days, his client would be cleared by policed investigatiors and back on his beat.
But the detective hesitated to take down the young cop's statement right away -- he wanted to determine how Karlsven was taking the fact that he'd just had to use his .38 on a man.
"Ever shot anyone before?" he asked.
"Yeah," said the cop." "I was in Vietnam."