Yankee Classic: The Battle Within
“It rained that night and we sat up under ponchos trying to keep everyone dry. In the morning the choppers came to get us out. That’s when I gave myself another shot of morphine. Our battalion had 69 killed, 110 wounded. Nearly half the men of my company were either killed or seriously wounded. My platoon sergeant told me, ‘Doc, you did a good job. I’m going to put you in for something if it ain’t nothing but the Silver Star.’ At the camp when they got ready to pull my bandage off I broke down and cried. I couldn’t find tears on the battlefield. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t.”
Larry’s 17-year-old nephew, with whom he shares the apartment, comes up the stairs. He’s quiet with strangers around and quickly goes into his room. Larry stands up, stretches, puts water on to boil. He goes into the living room, where a framed jigsaw puzzle of a covered bridge hangs on a wall. He shows off his tropical fish and his old army foot locker painted green, which he uses as a small table. During the last months of World War II he dropped out of school. Too young for the navy he joined the merchant marine. When he turned 18 he joined the army, and was shipped to Italy. “It was a segregated army then and they had so many black troops they didn’t know what to do with us. The only contact we had with white troops was our white company commander.” He stayed in the army until 1949. In 1952, while working in a Baltimore munitions factory, he got “armysick. I missed my buddies. I wanted to go to Korea as a paratrooper. I went back for the jump boots and the glider patch that said I was one of the elite.” He was too late for action, but he decided this would be his career, he’d stay in 20 years.
There’s a shout from downstairs. A friend is borrowing his car to take Larry’s sister to work. Larry checks the time. It’s 11:15. He wipes his eyes and gets his coffee, spooning Sweet ‘N Low into a mug printed “Larry.” He sits back down at the kitchen table.
“They operated on me that morning. That evening my company commander came over. He said, ‘Doc, they’re writing you up right now for the Medal of Honor.’ I didn’t believe it. All I did was my job — I didn’t take no hill. General Westmoreland came to my bed and congratulated me. About a week later I read my citation and shook all over. It took a long time before I could read it and not shake. Gangrene set in in my wounds. For two weeks they squirted vinegar and water in them. I’d put gauze in my mouth, stick my head under the pillow, and holler as loud as I could. I wasn’t gray when I went to Vietnam. I was in the hospital two weeks before I saw my face and I looked at my beard and it was white.
“I was in the hospital in Japan for three months. I’d keep hearing how far my citation had moved up the chain of command. I returned to Vietnam February 25, 1966, three days after my 38th birthday. I went on patrols for another month, then left for home on April 7. We came through the terminal in San Francisco with our uniforms on and our combat ribbons and the people just went about their business as if we’d been on a joy trip.”
He yawned deeply. “Oh, my jaw’s getting tired,” he said. “What’s your first name again?” I told him.
“Strange war,” he said. “Strange war. My wife told me to catch the limousine at the airport. She didn’t come to meet me. I came home and my little daughter was out hanging clothes on the line, and my son was in the house and he greeted me and gave me $3 to pay the limousine. My wife was working at her beauty shop. An hour later she came home, took an hour off to greet me, then went back to work. I’d been gone one year.”
There’s another shout from downstairs. His car has gone dead downtown. I drive us the mile or so to the lipstick factory where his sister works. “I know what’s wrong,” Larry says. “It’s loose on the connection.” There’s an old broom handle in the back seat of his car, apparently a well-used repair tool. He presses the battery cable connection with the end of the broom handle while I work the ignition. The engine roars to life, he throws the handle in the back seat and drives home.
At noon on Washington’s Birthday he is cleaning his apartment, wearing a black robe. It’s his birthday also, his 53rd. He says he’s had trouble sleeping, the talking has made him restless. He’s had bad dreams, but for the first time he feels like finding the guys in his old outfit. It’s about 50 degrees outside with a high blue sky. He dresses in his sharp blue Medal of Honor Society blazer for a photo session at nearby Seaside Park. There are lots of joggers along the walk beside the sea in the early afternoon, and some kids playing softball in the mud. When he poses he holds his back military straight, seemingly shedding five years. We drive to a small Greek restaurant, a “mom and pop” place, in downtown Bridgeport. He orders bluefish and spinach and coffee. Behind the grill the tall swarthy son of the owners is in high spirits — that night he will fly to Greece to be married.
“I always thought that the girl I married would be my wife forever,” Larry says. He lights a cigarette. “But I’m getting ahead of myself.”
“My ceremony was set for March 9, 1967, and they laid the red carpet down for me. I would be the first medic in Vietnam to get the medal, the first black soldier to live to get the medal in any combat action. No black soldier ever walked away with it. I was the first and I felt very proud. The day of my ceremony was a nice warm sunny day – it seemed made just for me. I trooped the lines with President Johnson as the bands played. I was told, ‘This is your parade. If you want to stop and say hello to friends, go ahead. Don’t worry about keeping in step with the President; the President will keep in step with you.’
“From that day on I became a celebrity to the army and I went on tour – Denver, Chicago, Cleveland: schools, hospitals, recruiting appearances. Every time I looked around I was called to the White House for some function. I was in Chicago and a reporter took me to the family of Milton Olive, a GI who’d thrown himself on a grenade. His parents showed me his room. They showed me his trains – he was just 19. They showed me his cameras – he was training to be a photographer like his father. It looked like they had his room all set up waiting for him to come home. The reporter asked us to take a picture together. I had my medal and they had their son’s medal in their hands. He was killed in the same war I was in and he was my son’s age. The word ‘posthumous’ goes right through me.
“Sometimes I just wanted to be by myself and forget. I drank more and more to suppress it and not talk about it. I never felt I was a ·hero. At the base I’d walk into a bar and never have to spend a penny. I’d get done one and there’d be another waiting. I couldn’t go anyplace without somebody making an announcement and I’d have to take a bow. Once my wife got a speeding ticket and it made the front page – ‘wife of Lawrence Joel.’ I learned to be so careful about what I did, what I said, how I said it.
“My wife would work very late in the beauty shop, my children were nearly grown and off on their own, and I was home alone. We had some terrible fights. She’d say I wouldn’t have risked my life if someone hadn’t been watching. Sometimes I’d run out of the house and stay drunk for three days. I didn’t know what I was going through. I figured I was just feeling sorry for myself. I didn’t know that everybody has problems when they first get the medal. You have to learn to live with it. There’s some that put it away as soon as they get it and never mention it again. When they die they find their ribbon as clean as the day they first got it. 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.