He died there on Sunday, 73 years old.
“It is difficult to write about Bill,” his younger brother, Paul, wrote in an obituary. “He lived three lives: before, during and after Vietnam.”
The poignant and unusually candid tribute was published Monday in the Dickinson Press, a small newspaper in a western North Dakota city of 25,000. But in its eloquent and affectionate telling of the impact of war in one man’s life, the obituary resonated widely. It was shared across social media, bringing hundreds of emails to Paul’s inbox from others who had lost something to war and prompting a story in the Forum News Service, a North Dakota news wire, about “the decorated war veteran who could never return to normalcy after the war ended.”
“I tried to be clear and I tried to be honest,” Paul said in a Wednesday phone interview with The Washington Post. “Bill was a damaged man, but the war in Vietnam pulled the trigger that caused the wound. There is no other way to say it than that.”
He was stunned by the reaction to his tribute, which stretched to more than a thousand words. A retired lawyer now living in New York, Paul worried the obituary lacked detail and depth and considered not sending it to the funeral home until his wife read it and insisted. He devoted hours to writing about the older brother he loved, hoping to capture “the real person” in a way that traditional obituaries often do not.
It was important to him not to shy away from the havoc Vietnam had wreaked. He worried that the lessons of the past might be lost — that America continues sending its youths off to endless combat without an exit strategy, even after those who fought in Vietnam “suffered so much because of politicians who never knew them.”
Not that Bill’s story is without its bright spots. The obituary notes that at the veterans home in Columbia Falls, Mont., where he lived for 26 years, “the patina of his memory covered life’s sorrows, and it was a blessing. Bill was happy there, living a life that was a strange mixture of hunting stories, pickup trucks and memories of some of his better times with women, friends and the outdoor life.”
Staff remember him walking down the hallways singing, playing the piano from memory and telling occasionally racy jokes.
“He was helpful to others even when he sometimes needed help himself,” said Bonnie Savage, an events coordinator at the home. “He was funny. He loved a good joke and he could tell a good joke, and he would laugh at good jokes. He’d speak in German and you’d ask him for clarification of what it was and you would sometimes regret asking.”
And yet his brother still wonders if everything could have turned out differently.
“What he would have become but for Vietnam is unknown,” Paul said. “But I can’t help but think it would have been great and good, and that the loss of that is tragic.”
Bill volunteered for the Army at 21. He grew up in constant motion: Paul, who is three years younger, remembers a home movie of Bill zipping through the house, the camera shaking as their parents told him to “simmer down a little.” Unsurprisingly, then, he was ready to get out of their small town. He deployed in the late 1960s to Vietnam, where, Paul said, he won numerous commendations for his valor.
When he returned home, he told his younger brother not to sign up for the Army.
He worked for a while at clothing store their father owned, but it was clear he wasn’t the same. He’d always loved drinking, but now he was drinking to “sort of become numb, even though every morning he woke up and went to work and for a period of time was successful,” Paul said.
Around 1984, Bill started suffering psychotic breaks. Paul wrote in the obituary that their parents’ “devotion and care for their war-damaged boy was strong and unfailing,” and said they tried desperately to find counselors and programs that might cure him.
“He just couldn’t come to the realization that he needed to live life with this burden and make wings for himself rather than make it an anchor,” Paul said. “He just couldn’t come to that realization. He slipped away young.”
Bill became a resident at the veterans’ home in 1994, when he was 48. By then, Paul said, he had been diagnosed with Korsakoff syndrome, a memory disorder often associated with alcohol misuse. Bill retreated in his mind to the Dickinson, N.D., of the late ’60s, and the man he had been back then, his brother said.
There were times when the war came back to him in flashes. But otherwise, it was 1969 and the world spread out with promise. Gas was 27 cents a gallon, Schlitz was still making beer, and there was always another hunt or date around the corner. It was a life where no one Bill loved had died, Paul said, and where he clung to memories of “wonderful things: of beautiful women, of great hunts, of fast cars and motorcycles.”
“Prematurely aged, his worldly goods in a small dresser, not knowing who the president might be or remembering why he should care, Bill’s losses were greater than most of us could endure,” Paul wrote in the obituary. “Yet, to those who love him, his brother and his brother’s wife, and their sons, he will always be a brave, accomplished man, more generous than was wise, more trusting than was safe.”
He concluded: “It is not possible to wrap your arms around a loved one who leaves. But it is possible to wrap your heart around a memory. Bill’s will be well taken care of.”