In the nightmares that have haunted him since his return from Vietnam in 1971, Randolph Taylor always dies alone.
Dying doesn't frighten Taylor, but the thought of dying alone terrifies him. So, two weeks ago when he decided to kill himself, he packed a .38-caliber chrome-plated Chief's Special in his blue backpack with letters from fellow Vietnam veterans, and took a cab to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, at 21st Street and Constitution Avenue NW.
"I wanted to die with my men," he said recently at the Veterans Administration Hospital, where he is recuperating from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. "I was too tired to struggle any more."
Depressed about losing his job as a San Francisco police officer and generally about what he sees as this country's disrespect for Vietnam veterans, Taylor, an ex-Marine who served as an infantry squad leader, decided to commit suicide.
He thought about the monument's black granite wall; about Jeffrey Charles Davis, the 36-year-old D.C. police officer who fatally shot himself on Sept. 18 at the memorial, becoming the first person to commit suicide there; about his own visit to the memorial; about how it was the one place where he never felt alone.
He first visited the wall two days after Christmas. His voice cracked as he related, "I looked up about a dozen names and I touched each one. I felt closer to those guys at that moment than I have at any other."
On Jan. 15, the day he shot himself, Taylor stopped in the predawn hours to talk to the veterans who hold a vigil there. "I think I was looking for someone to say something to stop me," he said. "But I didn't tell anyone what I was going to do."
Instead of finding something to stop him, Taylor said he found a reason to go ahead with his plans.
"If there's one thing that got next to me it was talking to this guy who was in the 82nd Airborne in Vietnam," he said. "He told me his son is a Marine in Lebanon now. I wanted to say, 'Man, what are you doing?' "
"That's what bothers me now," he explained at the hospital. "I see this new patriotism coming. 'Win one for the Gipper!' I remember that rah, rah, rah, and I think: That's what sent us to Vietnam."
After his talk with the veterans, Taylor walked from the wall to the nearby statue of three soldiers. He sat down at its base and took the gun out of his backpack.
"I thought about shooting myself in the head, but in combat the one thing you're really afraid of is getting hit in the face," he said. "I held the gun in my lap and pointed it toward my chest. I was scared. A guy from the vigil came to check on me. He saluted. I told him to call the police. I thought that would force me to make a decision.
"I was right. As soon as I saw the lights and heard the sirens I got the nerve to pull the trigger," said Taylor, who still has the bullet lodged near his right shoulder blade. "I felt more pain than I've ever felt. I remember saying to one officer, 'Hey man, I'm not the enemy.' "
When he joined the Marine Corps in 1966, he was 20, a thin, 6-foot-tall student at Dabney S. Lancaster Community College in Clifton Forge, Va., next to the small paper-mill town of Covington, where he grew up. He knew a dozen or so young men from Covington -- "poor whites and black," he said -- who had been drafted, and his conscience told him to join, too.
At the time, Taylor was living at home with his mother and a younger sister. An older brother had left home. His father, a welder at the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company, had committed suicide a couple of years earlier, said Taylor's cousin, who asked not to be identified.
According to Taylor, while he was in Vietnam, his mother became severely depressed and started drinking heavily. "She couldn't bear to watch the news while he was away and she was depressed about her husband's suicide," the cousin said. About a year after Taylor returned from Vietnam, his mother died of cancer.
He served four tours in Vietnam, a total of 42 months, as a mortar man and infantry squad leader, said a Marine Corps spokesman. He was wounded three times, "all seem to be from fragmentations," the spokesman said. Taylor received the Navy Achievement Medal with Combat V (received for combat situations) and the Purple Heart with two oak leaf clusters (to signify he was wounded three times). But his life was severely changed. There were unseen scars and wounds.
Taylor said he went almost immediately to a VA hospital for treatment of depression and bouts with alcohol and drug abuse. His medical problems have often kept him from finding a job, according to records from the San Francisco VA hospital. Taylor said his unemployment usually meant financial problems.
He thought a job as a police officer with the San Francisco Police Department would be ideal. "It wasn't to play cops and robbers," Taylor said. "I wanted a job that somehow gave me respect."
He had to fight for the job. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Bill Wallace, who had written stories about Taylor, said, "They didn't want to let him in because he had been depressed. Randy filed a suit in 1981 and got a court order that said the commission was bound by a city-appointed psychiatrist, who said he had overcome his emotional problems."
Taylor joined the department, passed his academy training but was terminated during his probationary period, according to San Francisco police records.
Before he joined the police department, he was receiving full disability compensation, about $1,200 a month, from the VA, Taylor said. While he was working as a police officer, the VA cut his compensation to about $448 a month. Shortly afterward, he lost his job. Eventually, the change in income caught up with him.
Taylor left San Francisco, he said, with plans to move to Puerto Rico or somewhere in Central America. First, though, he wanted to visit friends in Covington and see his cousin in Arlington. While he was here, he started feeling ill. He believed he was addicted to his tranquilizers so he went to the VA hospital for help.
"When I left S.F. I had a drug problem, these tranquilizers, and I was evicted and facing homelessness for the first time," he said.
Last week, while in the hospital, Taylor received a letter saying the VA was going to reevaluate his case. Ozzie Garzas, a VA spokesman, said, "As of Nov. 1, his compensation was increased to 80 percent $648 . Because his records are in San Francisco and his checks are being sent to a San Francisco address, he may not know about the increase."
Meanwhile, Taylor is receiving psychiatric counseling. A VA hospital spokesman refused to discuss Taylor's medical problems.
As for the future, Taylor said, "I'm just going to take things one day at a time. I feel as bad as I felt when I first came home. I'm having nightmares again and can't sleep."
Moments later he said, "Some people in San Francisco have asked me to come back and file a suit against the police department. I might do that. I would like to return to . . . Vietnam, too, and make my peace. That's the only way I believe I can get rid of some of these nightmares. I might even stay there. Sometimes I think I'd be more welcomed there than I am here."
"What is happening to me isn't about one veteran," he often said during an interview. "There are hundreds of others like me. I don't think any veteran of any war ever really gets over it. The rain may trigger a flashback, remind me of the monsoon season in Vietnam. The smell of gunpowder reminds me of Vietnam. They don't make me do anything, they just trigger memories.
"Here, at the hospital, us Vietnam veterans wake up at the same times at night and go to the day room. You'll look into someone's eyes and you know he's just had a nightmare, too.
"It's sad that all those guys on the wall didn't get their dreams," said Taylor. "But how about all those boys who came home and didn't get their dreams, either. All we got is nightmares."