Recently I arranged the service and eulogized a friend I had known for over 50 years. He lived for 88 years and was the last World War II veteran I personally knew.
A Marine honor guard gave dignity to the occasion with ceremony and deep respect.
We had been close friends in the 1960s. Life and circumstances kept us acquainted, but not close. Then a year ago he called for help. He had become physically and mentally frail.
I immediately got him into the VA Medical Center, then into hospice care and became his guardian. I visited him daily, helped keep his spirits intact and witnessed his slow fade from us.
We reminisced about people we had known and occurrences shared. Even entering senility he could recall details of his life all the way back to his school days and life with his grandparents in the 1930s and 1940s
But he never discussed his military service. I knew just as World War II ended he was part of a Marine force intended for the invasion of Japan, but diverted to guard duty in northern China.
Just once, decades ago, quite tipsy, he described shooting a Chinese soldier and seeing puffs of down pop from the quilted uniform. Then, sober, he refused to acknowledge the tale. But friends recently verified the story and its detailed puffs of down.
I began to realize that some traumatic event in China may have been the basis for personal problems he often demonstrated.
In 1946 it was not becoming to a Marine to express any human and fearsome reaction to an act or horror of war.
My friend was very well read, especially in World War I-era poetry. He was generous, warm and humorous, but always drank lots of beer. He remained detached, always a bit distant.
He very rarely expressed positive emotions. Our friends and I discerned a protective shell that never allowed him to be too close.
He graduated high school in 1946 and was a senior during Iwo Jima. He graduated school as the mightiest Marine Corps battle of the Pacific war, Okinawa, raged. Predictably, at 17, he had his mother sign for him to become a Marine.
Once a nurse thanked him for his service. With a smile he assured her volunteering for duty did not require thanks.
After his discharge he drifted aimlessly for 10 years and worked as a truck driver, taxi driver and casual laborer, never long in each, and often quit without notice. He did basic labor work as his career. He had a couple of long-term girlfriends but never married.
In his final days I considered his reluctance to discuss his Marine service, drifting through life and cross-country between Buffalo and California after discharge, drinking daily and often heavily and avoiding close relationships. I realized he had the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or related trauma and it cost him a fruitful life.
When we go to war, we fill our young with patriotic fervor, supply them with effective weapons and train them to kill. Then we send them to battle.
When their duty or the war is done we bury the dead, treat the wounded and measure appreciation to the rest by teaspoons.
The high suicide rate of our veterans tells us we fail them. We owe more than certification of service and a burial ceremony. We must make all our veterans whole.