Before I went into the Army, I grew up in a rural neighborhood in Oshkosh, WI with lots of other kids. It was the 1960’s and many of us were children of World War II parents so we always had enough kids to form sports teams. Depending upon the season, we would play kickball, football, baseball, basketball and in the winter either hockey or tackle Pom Pom on ice skates. We were always active outside and we were tough kids and it was before the advent of video games, computers, tablets and phones.
In the summers of our youth, we would play baseball on a large neighbor’s waterfront property consisting of several acres virtually every nice day. It was owned by the Dempsey family and any of the boys from the Dempsey family John, Jim, Eddie and Mike would be playing ball with us daily. When we tired of the game we would sprint to the lake kicking off our shoes along the way and dive into the lake and hold our breath under the water for over a minute. That seemed to be a test of athletic ability and manhood. We all became excellent swimmers and we’d be in the lake until dinner time.
After dinner, we would congregate at the Fred Menacher property where Fred had created a softball field next to his house for his kids Tom, Fred Jr., and Carol and their friends. Fred put a lot of money in the ball diamond and we really appreciated being able to play there. If we played softball at the Menacher’s once, we did it fifty times through our teen years. Fred or his wife always had pitchers of Kool Aid for us to gulp down after the game. Fred was a terrific guy who left us too soon due to tragically falling through the ice and drowning on lake Winnebago.
We had a core group of probably fifteen kids from the surrounding neighborhood including the Dempsey’s, Purtell’s, Manion’s, Menacher’s, Fullers together with Gary Tadych, Bill Lageman, Ron Schultz and Tom Brennand and we never suspected at the time that at least five of us would end up in the military and most of us in Vietnam. Bill Lageman joined the Navy, Tom Menacher and Tom Brennand, Tim Manion and I joined the Army and my brother Dic volunteered for the Marine Corps. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
As things happen, following our entry into high school, we ended going up to different schools and forming new friendships and for the most part the old neighborhood gang broke up. We didn’t plan it this way - it just happened. Our school years and summers now consisted of participating in high school sports, girlfriends and dances and part-time jobs. We were all busy in a different way.
As we approached our senior year of high school, the war in Vietnam was raging and five or six of the neighborhood gang joined the military with four of us going to Vietnam including three with the infantry. I was a combat medic with the infantry and Tom Menacher and Tom Brennand were Army infantry. My brother Dic was an MP with the Marines in Vietnam and Bill Lageman served in the Navy.
Being engaged in combat as very young men in our formative years (18-19 years old) was traumatic and life changing. Seemingly overnight, we went from 18 year old kids and transformed into 30 year old men. The things we saw and were exposed to on the battlefield robbed us of our youth and instilled in us defense mechanisms that we all tried to use to adjust back into civilian life following the war. We came home shaken by the experience, distrustful of the government and people in authority and unable to step back into society as the same people we were before Vietnam. Everything, and I mean everything, had changed for us. Chronologically, we were only one year older, but mentally and from a maturation perspective, we had aged several years. As I co-wrote in a song called “Nobody Cared” with Al Torsiello and Ricki E. Bellos, we all came back a little bit broken and we returned to a country that largely ignored us.
PTSD had not yet been accepted as a diagnosis in 1969/70 so many of us returning combat vets didn’t know why we felt so different than our non-veteran friends. We didn’t know about startle reflex (ducking because of loud unexplained noises like firecrackers or car backfires), we didn’t know why we had prolonged periods of sadness or why we were angry and failing in work and personal relationships. It was only until much later when I volunteered at the first Vietnam Vet Center in Washington D.C., when I read Dr. Tom Wilson’s book and first learned those issues we had experienced were symptoms related to PTSD.
My experience with Vietnam combat vets, and it’s been rather extensive, is that each vet handled his problems in his own way. Some turned to alcohol and drugs to self medicate, while others lived in denial, or poured themselves into work or marriages to try and bury their military war experiences. What I have learned, is that not many of us has successfully dealt with PTSD and it’s evident the VA hasn’t been very effective in treating the vets. Where is the evidence you may be asking and I say it’s right in front of us. Twenty to twenty two vets a day kill themselves and this has been happening in communities across the country for many years including two recent suicides this month at VA facilities. The total number of vets dying by their own hand is 8000 per year and over an eight year period, equals or exceeds, the population of my hometown Oshkosh, WI with 60,000 plus people. The numbers are staggering and should alarm us all.
During the month of May 2019, I will be donating 100% of my profits from the sales of my book “Vietnam: There and Back - A Combat Medic’s Chronicle to a veteran suicide organization Impact 22 www.impact22.com. My publisher Harley Patrick from Hellgate Press is supporting me in this endeavor and will be posting a statement on his website www.hellgatepress.com to help create awareness of this issue. I’m doing this for all of the vets from WWII to Afghanistan who could not carry their burdens any further and died by their own hand, including my boyhood friend Tom Menacher - a Vietnam combat veteran, a father, a husband and a former usher at St. Peter’s church.
If you haven’t yet purchased my book available through Hellgate Press, Amazon or www.jimpurtell.com, I would appreciate your support in fighting this fight for those who can no longer fight. Veteran suicide is an issue nobody wants to talk about and I understand those feelings. But we have to work through them and do something about this tragic issue. If you have already purchased my book and you’d like to help, please donate directly at www.impact22.com.
My blog is titled “Viewing the War through Music” and I have written a song performed by Jon Statham called “22 a Day“ about veteran suicide. Snippets can be heard in the music section at www.jimpurtell.com