My cousin Frank died June 30, 1999. Although I had neither seen nor talked with him for over 15 years, I was deeply saddened by his passing. He was a good and patriotic man who ultimately fell victim to that very patriotism while serving in Viet Nam.

Frank and I grew up together in the Pilsen area of
Chicago. We were like bread and butter, milk and cookies. Where Frank was, Jim was. Where Jim was, Frank was. In an era where aunts and uncles lived just a few blocks this way or that, we had a wonderfully secure childhood with as many misadventures as adventures. Baseball, double dates and parties seemed to go on for years and years.

Then came that dirty, wasteful war. Frank enlisted in the Army. For reasons I still cannot seem to grasp, he volunteered for the 101st Airborne. He really didn’t have to. He was a smart fellow and could have taken many other routes to serve his country during those strange and troubled times.

September 1965, which feels like a hundred years ago, his unit of the 101st was in a firefight somewhere in
Nam. Frank was hit by friendly fire, if there is such a thing. He was badly wounded, losing his left leg and suffering shrapnel wounds in other parts of his body.

Through sheer guts and determination, he made a remarkable physical recovery. I don’t think he ever recovered from the mental and emotional damage.

In 1966, I was stationed at the U.S. Naval Training Center in
Bainbridge, Md. I visited Frank while he was recuperating at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington D.C. On more than one occasion, we would rent a hotel room and get stinking drunk together. I was all of 21 and preparing to head out “to the fleet.” Although a year younger that me, he was this wounded, grizzled vet who seemed many years older. Strange times indeed.

I drove the 80 or so miles from Bainbridge in an old VW bug, rented for 10 bucks from a shipmate whenever he had the weekend duty and I didn’t. I smile whenever I recall Frank driving that stick shift using his good leg on the gas and his crutch on the clutch. Fun times despite the agony.

He was fiercely proud of being a paratrooper. The amputee ward at Walter Reed was full of butchered young men. He introduced me to all of them. Before I left
Maryland, he made sure he and his buddies got me very drunk at Walter Reed’s servicemen’s club. Sitting among those wounded who were drinking to my future success made me feel very humble indeed. I truly wondered how I would react if I should find myself in a life-or-death situation just as they had.

I never had to find out. I spent my tour of duty stationed at the Naval Base in
Keflavik, Iceland and aboard the USS Ozark out of Charleston, S.C.

Frank and I stayed close for a few years after the war, but it just didn’t seem the same. At one point he decided to buy a Jeep and moved to
Marquette, Mich. He rolled the Jeep on an icy road, was tossed from the vehicle and became paralyzed from the waist down. He became more reclusive after the accident. I visited him once when he was being treated after his accident at Hines Veterans Hospital in Maywood. It was an uneasy conversation where we couldn’t get past talking of nothing but old times together. Eventually we lost touch.

Now he’s gone. Somehow I always felt he and I would reconnect.

I read somewhere that Viet vets who succumb to combat wounds long after the war can have their names added to the Viet Nam Memorial in
Washington. I don’t know if his brothers and sisters will consider it, but I think Frank would like that.

So long, soldier.

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