Larry Joel of Bridgeport, Connecticut
“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 T. 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 10 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.