On the weekend of August 15, 1968, while many of his generation were avoiding the brown acid and writhing like palsied ferrets at a rock festival in Woodstock, New York, Frank Campbell was lying in a coma in a field hospital somewhere in Vietnam, the bottom half of his left leg and a good portion of his vital organs blown away by a grenade tossed by a North Vietnamese national. He was in that coma for almost a year. When he awoke, he was sent home with a cheap, government-issue wheelchair, and a small monthly stipend from which to pay rent, food, and necessities. He told to enjoy a life he well understood would be probably half as long as other American males of his era.
He did. With a tenacity that surprised no one who knew him, he lived three more decades. It was never easy for him; he had numerous physical ailments, including diabetes ("That's what happens when you leave most of your pancreas in Vietnam") and chronic lung issues. He loved music, a good laugh (once he started, it would take a while to stop), and talking a blue mess, which he did about as well anyone I've ever met. He worked for a while as an overnight radio DJ, and, listening to him late one night coming home, he had me laughing so hard I literally had to pull over on the shoulder. Hearing Frank's Chicago growl gigging on "all the inbreds out there listening in", while continuing to drive on the interstate at four in the morning, was simply not a good idea.
Although he showed no reluctance to talk or write about his experiences, he hid the emotional scars, which, he confessed to some of us, were opened on nights when it rained. After he lost his wife and only child in a car wreck, on Thanksgiving day in 1993, he would take long trips on his beloved Electra Glide, and sometimes he would disappear for days. He took up bounty hunting, setting up office and catching bad guys in a beat-to-hell Chevy van, and kept himself busy.
Taking life too seriously, though, was never an option.
The war finally caught up with him in 2002. He caught a cold, what most of us would see as a minor infection. His body, however, was just too damn beaten and torn to fend for itself any longer. He checked himself into a hospital, which he had done dozens of times before. This time, though, the infection deepened, and Frank passed away, peacefully, we were told, in his sleep.
Richard Rochelle went to Vietnam in the late sixties, an enlistee, gung-ho and ready to wear the Ranger's beret he long coveted, then earned. He did his duty, but became more disillusioned over time. He served with valor, picked up several medals and citations, but never gave a thought to sticking around when his hitch was up.
He came home and became an artist and wood sculptor, but never really got over his time in Vietnam. He told me once that when he was creating something, it was the only time he was truly at peace. Creating, he said, was much easier on one's soul than destroying.
His girlfriend, through whom I met Richard, told me of several times she awakened to find him gone, only to catch him sleepwalking, "patrolling" the kitchen. An airplane going over his head would find him uneasy. Sudden noises could have a scary effect. At a Super Bowl party one year, he was kicked back in a chaise lounger. Someone behind him asked for a beer, and I threw the bottle over Richard's head. He cringed and blanched. He later laughed it off. But it reminded me that every day he dealt with awful reminders of his time there.
He passed away in 1999, the victim of a cancer that he developed as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange. He was, literally, and belatedly, killed by "friendly fire". He was a part of a class action lawsuit, brought by veterans, seeking compensation for the damage to their bodies by the government's herbicidal warfare practices. For that, he received a check for just over $135. He wrote "cram it" on the back of the check, and sent it to the White House. He got a nice little visit from the Secret Service for that one.
Before he passed, he achieved some degree of peace. He became a truck driver, which he loved, and he would show up at home at odd times, almost always bearing gifts from the road. I still have the copper Zippo lighter he picked up at some truck stop, still wicked and oiled, even though I haven't smoked a cigarette in over a decade. He learned to live fully again, and, if he still fought the same demons, they tried him less frequently, and little less intensely. Like Frank, he laughed hard and long, and in those moments, he was free from the battles that haunted him most of his life.
After his diagnosis, he told me he was going to die. Just that bluntly. He said he hoped to stave it off a few more years. But within months, it was clear his time was much shorter. Before he left, he mended some fences, and, as the time grew closer, shut himself down. His old girlfriend called me to tell me he was failing fast, and I needed to go see him. I left work a few minutes early that afternoon, ready to head up the mountain to say good-bye to my friend. She called back, just before I walked out the door. He was gone.
It's often said that the cost of freedom was paid in blood. But it's costlier than that. It's also paid for with the tears of a little boy who is crying himself to sleep, having just learned that his daddy will not be home in time for his birthday party, after all, but has, instead, gone to Heaven to be with Jesus. Or the God-awful emptiness of a mother and dad who want nothing more than to trade the beautiful funeral ceremony and folded flag for one more damn hug from their son. Or the sleepless nights a wife has, watching over her husband as he dreams fitfully and relives the battle he has been trying to forget his entire adult life.
Veterans are heroes, but not superheroes. They bleed and hurt and cry. They don't want to go through whatever hell they go through, nor do they wish to put their loved ones through it. What they, and their families, go through can never be repaid, not with a hundred "special" days. The ones who are here, we can thank. The ones who have gone, we will remember. It is not enough.
I watched my two friends go through slow deaths, as a result of their service. I would give anything to see Frank walk up to my door, his gap-toothed grin at having scored a new Stones bootleg, or a new artist I "had to hear". Or have one more late night with Richard, solving the world's problems over a bottle of Bushmills, while Howlin' Wolf records play in the background. It ain't gonna happen.
To all my friends and family who have served, or still serve, thank you. I hope you can enjoy what you have defended and fought for.
To Frank and Richard: I miss you guys.
I promise I won't forget.