As our country endures more military tension in the Middle East, I was thinking a great deal about the members of the military who may be affected. I hope they will be safe now, in the coming weeks, and months as their lives continue to be in danger from potential escalated violence and conflict.
After my late husband, 1st Lt. James L. Hull, died while serving his country in the Vietnam War, I am all too familiar with the tragedy of losing a loved one who served overseas. While some of our dedicated young servicemen and women never return home, there are those who do and yet, they are never the same.
The unforgettable memories, and post-traumatic stress of war, affect our returning military members in all kinds of ways. For one Vietnam War veteran, Bill Ebeltoft, his deployment to Vietnam changed his life forever.
The life story, and obituary, of this decorated veteran recently went viral in national news publications across the country (including NPR (article link), the Washington Post, and CNN). Ebeltoft, who died in December 2019 at the age of 73, lead a troubled and complicated life after serving in the Vietnam War; it is a reminder to us all of the indelible memories and tragedies of war.
Ebeltoft’s brother, Paul, wrote this moving obituary that talked about a friendly, happy-go-lucky boy who was a popular high school classmate and friend to all in his small hometown. After serving in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot, Ebeltoft came back home and was never quite the same.
Like far too many military veterans who return home after war, Bill turned to alcohol and had trouble holding a steady job. Resigned to an assisted living facility for nearly 30 years, his friends, caretakers and family still maintained that Bill was one of the nicest and caring people they had ever met. Bill’s brother could not help but speculate how Bill’s life may have been different if he had not witnessed and experienced the unspeakable horrors of war.
Years ago, I learned about the struggle so many Vietnam veterans face when returning home from war. As a recovering alcoholic and a Vietnam widow, I volunteered at a local Kansas VA hospital in the alcohol treatment unit. My background helped me bridge the gap with some of these veterans who were trying to escape the horrific memories, and post-traumatic stress, of their deployment.
I felt an immense bond with these veterans, and we shared similar life stories in so many ways. As I wrote in my first book, Where the Water Meets the Sand, the tragedies of war affected us differently, yet we all were going through personal challenges to overcome loss. I spoke to these veterans about my battles with substance abuse and unlocking my emotions:
I had not experienced the horror of battle, put my life on the line, or been spit on by some Americans when I returned home from serving my country. What I did know was the war had torn loved ones from all of us.
For our next generation of young men and women returning from conflicts overseas, we deserve to show them the support they deserve. Mental health services, support groups and employment opportunities must be provided for these veterans, so they do not feel alienated upon their return home.
The story of Bill Ebeltoft also shows that, despite immense personal hardship, substance abuse problems and mental health issues, Bill was still loved by all. He maintained the characteristics that made him an amazing person throughout this life.
As Bill’s brother so importantly stated in his interview with NPR’s Ari Shapiro, Bill’s life story is a time for us to reflect on how we treat veterans in this country, “There is a chance for those of us who are living to do more not only for Vietnam-era veterans but for ourselves and for other veterans as well.”