Over 58,200 men and a few women were killed during the Vietnam War and hundreds of thousands were wounded. It’s been estimated that as many people were killed during the war, a similar number have died from exposure to Agent Orange. It’s further estimated that 22 veterans a day die from suicide and many of these deaths are Vietnam vets. Many people who fought in that war suffered injuries that can’t be seen. Some unfortunately despite the VA’s best efforts, remain homeless while others weathered the storm and pursued careers successfully. Why some persevered and others didn’t, I don’t know the answer for sure.
What I do know, as a group of veterans returning from Vietnam, we were grossly mistreated by the media and American people. The war was so distasteful and the media’s view so slanted, that we became scorned for having served. Many of us withdrew and went into the closet rather than let anyone know we served in Vietnam. Veterans then, in my opinion, were treated like the cops are being treated today - with the same disdain.
The ramifications of the withdrawal often lead Vietnam combat vets to self medicating with drugs or alcohol to escape the way we felt. It didn’t take me long to seek out other combat vets when I returned from Vietnam because I couldn’t relate to others due to the trauma I suffered in the war. I was never wounded. How that happened when so many of my platoon members were wounded or killed is absolutely beyond me. I was flat out lucky to have made it, but I never feel lucky. The lingering effects of the trauma stayed with me and several of my company members for many years.
One of my platoon mates was named Eugene “Bean” Lynch. He was Brooklyn born and raised and probably twenty, when I, at 18 years of age, met him in the jungles of Vietnam. I was introduced to him by Al Torsiello the first guy I met in the jungles of Vietnam (I recite part of this story in my memoir Vietnam: There and Back - A Combat Medic’s Chronicle). Al asked as soon as I got off the helicopter where I was from and I replied Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Al said “prove it”. I found the request odd, but I did pull out my wallet and produced an ID card with my Oshkosh address. Al then yelled “Bean, there really is an Oshkosh”.
Unknown to me at the time, many people who lived on the East Coast used the expression “go to Oshkosh” when they were mocking someone for what they perceived to be an untruthful statement. They had no idea back in 1968 that there really was a city, actually two cities, one in Wisconsin and another in Nebraska bearing that name. It was just an expression they used in jest.
Eugene “Bean” Lynch walked over to where I was standing and Al said “Bean, there really is an Oshkosh and this guy, our new Doc, is from there”. Bean examined my ID and said “no shit”. Then the big, muscle bound, red headed Irishman, with a freckled face, smiled and said “good to meet you Doc”. The way he conducted himself, the respect shown to him by Al, his stature, his looks and personality, I knew after spending a few minutes with him, I’d never met anyone like him before. In my eyes, he was a giant among men. He made such an impression upon me.
I wasn’t alone in that regard as Bean was very popular with the rest of the guys. If Bean liked you, as he fortunately did with me, you were in. He was a leader, a joker, a wise guy with personality to burn, but when we got into the shit, Bean was always there. Bean never shirked his duty.
The day Bean got wounded in June 1968, I was very close by. We were ambushed after walking down a road and we broke through an area and returned an enormous amount of firepower. Some very visible grenades came flying our way and fragments from one of them hit Bean wounding him in the ankle. He said “Doc, I’m hit”. At that same time, a decision was made for us to vacate the area immediately, so rather than treat Bean’s wound, we all began running as fast as we could to a specific area. I was in good physical shape, and a fairly good runner, but Bean, with a damaged ankle, beat me to the new site. I treated his wound, put him on a helicopter with several other guys throughout that day and Bean’s days in the field with the infantry were over.
Whenever I’d get back to our base camp at LZ Bayonet, I’d look up Bean and we’d head to the enlisted men’s club to talk, laugh and drink beer. In my early years, I could inhale beers quickly so fast that Bean would challenge anybody and say “Doc can beat you chugging a beer”. There was more than one night when Bean hoisted me on his broad shoulders and challenged anybody to a beer chugging match. I say this to only show my relationship with Bean as a young, immature 19 year old - not to glorify drinking.
After the war, I traveled to New Jersey to meet Al Torsiello who was really the only guy from my Vietnam service that I stayed in touch with regularly. We decided to get in the car and go find Bean. We drove to Brooklyn, and on a tip, found him acting as a bouncer in this night club. He was well dressed, looked great and was so happy to see us. We had several beers together and it was a great reunion. I also spent a night with him in Seagirt, New Jersey where his parents put me up at their home on the Jersey shore.
A few years later, with two guys from Oshkosh, we headed to New York City on a vacation. Upon arrival, I called another platoon mate Louie Panteleone who was a New York transit cop and he showed us around the city. I also called Bean and we all partied together in the city which carried over at the condo where we were staying. I had my guitar and Bean loved to sing loudly and he did so until early into the morning. He was so full of life.
While going to graduate school at UW-Oshkosh, I was also tending bar at night at Butch’s Anchor Inn. I answered the phone in the bar one night and the caller was Bean who had never called me there before. Obviously he called someone else in town who gave him the phone number. The last person I expected to call me that night was Bean. He said he was on his way to Texas and he would be coming through Oshkosh later in the evening. We made plans to meet at my brother’s bar Terry’s in downtown Oshkosh.
At the end of my shift, I headed to Terry’s and waited quite a long time for Bean to arrive. He finally did and we consumed pitcher after pitcher of beer. I was so happy to see him and I introduced him to several people. At closing time, we went to my apartment and consumed a few more beers and I let him sleep on my couch. When I got up the next morning, Bean was gone. There was no note or any evidence he had been there. I thought at the time that was odd, but I resumed my life.
Several months later, I called Al Torsiello and asked if he’d heard from Bean and he hadn’t. We decided to look for him. I wrote a letter to a sister at Bean’s last known address in Brooklyn and tried calling the numbers we had, but we heard nothing. Al tried on his end too unsuccessfully. We just figured Bean had settled down somewhere, and we’d hear from him, when he wanted that to happen.
Some years later, Al Torsiello went to Texas and sought out another Vietnam war platoon mate of ours. They had a really nice visit and Al called me after it with the news Bean was dead. We were both emotionally crushed by the unwelcome news because we loved him like a brother. In war, you make friendships that in some cases are stronger than blood. Al had learned that Bean returned to the Killeen, Texas area where he had lived previously when stationed at Ft. Hood and had fallen on rough times. Bean started using drugs and got hooked up with the wrong people. He became indigent, died alone, likely from an overdose, and was buried in a Potters Field. Bean wasn’t killed in Vietnam, but I’d bet but for the Vietnam War, he wouldn’t have lost his way.
For several months, I thought about Bean and I kept asking myself how a guy who by all appearances had everything going for him, could end up the way he did. The term Potters Field kept resonating in my mind. Our buddy died broke and nobody claimed his body or paid for his burial. That’s why he was buried in a Potters Field. Had we known, we surely would have paid for it. But we didn’t know until many months after his death. I will always believe Bean was yet another casualty of the Vietnam war. He started using drugs to likely escape the pain he found himself in and the drugs did him in.
I wanted to memorialize Bean so he would be remembered for who he was for most of his life yet to remain truthful about what happened to him. My blog is Viewing the War Through Music so my tribute to him can be heard in a song I wrote, performed by Jon Statham, titled Potters Field at www.soundcloud.com/Jim-Purtell/potters-field