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Larry Joel of Bridgeport, Connecticut

And everyone who goes into combat gets wounded, whether they know it or not. It leaves a mark forever. I’d changed but I didn’t know it. I was traveling and people called me hero, but I felt like nothing. It got so bad at home I got a room in the barracks. My son was caught in the middle. Once we were fighting and we looked up and he was gone. We broke up shortly after that.

“Some officers looked down on me if I refused an appearance. Others thought I was avoiding detail and was just chasing glory. I felt tossed between the Devil and the Lord Almighty. I got sick of trying to please so one day I said I wanted to go back to Vietnam. I spent that Christmas 1969 in Vietnam. That’s how bad I wanted to escape.

“I stayed 17 months that time. I was assigned to the brigade commander and I’d go with him in his helicopter twice a day when he directed operations. I asked to go on patrol but they wouldn’t let me, (He received a Bronze Star for his actions during a mortar attack, however,) When I came home I couldn’t adjust to regular soldiering. I got a ticket for drunken driving and I saw the handwriting on the wall. I had my 20 years so I retired. I had five sisters and a brother in Bridgeport. All I had was my footlocker, $1,500, and some medals. I got a job at the VA and threw myself into it. I put myself in the hospital to stop drinking. I’d tried stopping so long for other people — when I tried stopping for myself I found I could do it. I don’t think I really came back from Vietnam until the day I finally stopped drinking.”

He finishes his dinner in silence. Because he’s diabetic he downs another coffee in place of dessert. When he walks out the door he calls to the young Greek, “Good luck.”

A few months passed. He applied to be health administrator of a veterans’ nursing home, a job he wanted very badly, and was rejected. He said he was really feeling the strain of his job, often feeling he was on the wrong side, having to tell veterans their claims were not justified under the law. Sometimes the wrath of a veteran denied benefits would be directed at Larry; at such times he said he felt powerless. He just wanted out. In summer word came that Larry was in intensive care in the VA hospital, stricken with an ulcer. “If the doctor had laid me I was dying,” he’d say later. “I wouldn’t have gotten excited. Least I’d have been out of pain.”

He brooded. “Seems I’m hustling backwards, seems I’m winding down,” In the hospital he made plans to file for a government disability pension. He had few needs and he would get by on that plus his $200 Medal of Honor pension and his army retirement. He looked forward to writing the story of his life. “It’ll be like Roots.” In November his disability claim was rejected.

We met the day after Christmas. He had moved with his sister across town, next door to another sister, a roomy four-bedroom house, still crowded with nine people. He shared his bedroom with his nephew. With little privacy his patience wore thin and sometimes he’d yell at his sister’s three young grandchildren at the slightest provocation. I drove to his house, but he wasn’t there. He phoned. He had a flat tire across town. Could I pick him up? We came home for his insulin injection, then drove to a nearby steak house. He was wan, tired.

He said he knew he needed help to get his life in order. He would start back at the VA in January, part-time, and was debating whether to move to New Haven or Hartford or to stay put. He would work on getting medical evidence that he could no longer tolerate the stress of his work.

I wondered if he realized that soon it would be 15 years since he received his medal. He shook his head in surprise.

“I tell myself it’s going to be better,” he said, smoke trailing from his cigarette above his glass of milk. “I don’t let myself stay down. I saved a lot of people’s lives once. Now I’ve got to help myself.”

“You were a good medic, weren’t you?” I asked.

He brightened. “The best,” he said, “the very best.”

Updated Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

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