The Jungle Gliding Darkly By - Part V

The Jungle Gliding Darkly By

Note: Fifty years ago this month, the man who would become my husband—Richard Lowell Hill—landed in the Republic of Vietnam. He was twenty-three years old, a college graduate who had been drafted into the army the year before. His experience in Vietnam launched a chain of events that would shape and change our lives. In memory of that fateful year—1968—I’ve decided to share excerpts here from my unpublished memoir and his Vietnam diary throughout the coming weeks.

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5.

Richard and I got married in our dining room on a rainy Saturday morning in June 1979. Richard’s mother and step-father flew in from Santa Barbara for the wedding; my parents sent red roses. Only a few close friends attended, including Ron, my co-worker from the South Dakota Division of Tourism.

He was fine photographer, a Vietnam veteran, who’d been in Saigon during the last days of the war. He came to our house that morning with his Nikon and captured what we thought was the defining moment of the ceremony: Richard’s difficulty with one of the vows.

“For better or worse,” the justice of the peace prompted.

“For better or worse,” Richard repeated clearly.

 “For richer or poorer,” the justice said smoothly.

Richard paused. “For richer,” he began, then paused again. “For richer.... or....” His voice broke and he stumbled over the next word. “Or po—or—er.”

We all burst out laughing. All our guests knew Richard’s miserly reputation. He’d initially suggested that I didn’t need a new wedding ring since I still had one from my first marriage, and he refused to buy himself a suit for the wedding. He wore his navy blue college fraternity blazer from 1965.

Ron’s snapshot of that moment shows our matron of honor giggling into her bouquet, the best man trying to keep his cool, and me looking up at Richard with a wouldn’t-you-know-it smile. Richard grins sheepishly, his face flushed, as he stares down at his hand over mine.

After the laughter subsided, the ceremony continued and the vow that really mattered, the one that defined the last days of our marriage slipped past without notice: “In sickness and in health, until death do us part.”

*****

On November 1, 1968, Richard was in Bu Prang, on assignment with Special Forces. He suffered from a crippling attack of diarrhea and it continued into the next day when he flew out of Bu Prang on a Caribou. “Bad water I think,” he wrote in his diary. “These SF camps are not the cleanest I’ve ever seen.”

The next day he was medevaced to a holding station in Ban Me Thout, suffering from “vomiting, bad diarrhea, fever, chills, headaches, sore muscles and back, nausea.” Richard hoped it was something he ate, anything but malaria: he had just eighteen days to go until R & R in Hong Kong.

He ended up in an army medical ward in the coastal town of Tuy Hoa, where doctors tested him for malaria. Again and again. The tests proved negative and his overall condition improved. Yet the diarrhea persisted, and Richard remained in what he called the “Horizontal Corps.” His condition was probably more serious than his diary reveals. Army doctors are usual eager to release their patients back into active service. But Richard’s doctor was in no hurry to let Richard go.

To fill the long hours, he read, sunbathed, and as he grew stronger, even helped paint the walls in his ward. He also wrote the School of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University, requesting a new set of application forms. He couldn’t know then that his efforts were futile, that WSU had no place in its program for a returning Vietnam vet. But the dream nourished and sustained him—a return to civilian life, the war as little more than a brief detour toward the goals he cherished.

After two weeks, he was discharged from the medical ward— without a definitive medical diagnosis —and flew back to Plei Djereng. In his absence, things had changed, most notably his good friend Bullwinkle was up for a promotion as section chief. Richard struggled with what this meant for their friendship and his own sense of worth. “I taught him most of what he knows.... Don’t want the job but still don’t like the idea of not being considered.” In the end, Richard was honest with himself, and conceded, “He’ll do a good job.”

 He congratulated Bullwinkle, then left for his scheduled R & R. Richard arrived at Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong on November 23, and spent five days there. He went sightseeing, shopped, and had several fittings with a tailor. He flew back to Plei Djereng and settled into what he feared would be a tiresome routine.

It didn’t last. In early December, Richard reported, “Urine is the color of coffee and has been for four days.... Don’t feel too good. Liver is tender and eyes are jaundiced. Skin showing some yellow tint now too.”

It was infectious hepatitis. Richard was convinced he’d picked it up in the Tuy Hoa medical ward: “Lots of hepatitis patients spread in amongst us,” he wrote. He was sent to the 71st Evac Unit in Pleiku, then on to an Air Force field hospital in Tokyo, and finally to Camp Oji, Ward 7, an Army hospital also in Tokyo.

“Looking more like Ghengis Khan every day,” he observed. Doctors told him to expect a one-month recuperation. But Richard’s case proved more persistent. He lost weight, developed flu-like symptoms and more severe diarrhea. His blood count was low. “Looks like my recovery is on the rocks,” he wrote on January 3, 1969.

His mind was fuzzy, “wet,” as he called it. Richard wrote that “Sometimes I get these fits of insanity like I like the army. Even think of going back to college for a year, getting commissioned in ROTC and staying around in FA [Field Artillery] for a couple of years. Crazy, but I sometimes think of it!”

Richard’s condition worsened. As he counted down the days left in his tour of duty, he noted his rising bilirubin. On an especially bad day, he wrote with a touch of characteristic irony, “I guess I’m going to die.”

Ultimately, his battle against hepatitis strengthened his resolve to leave the army. “Now that my recovery is so damn slow,” he wrote on January 20, 1969, “I’m becoming more of a civilian every day.”

Ten days later, Richard, wearing jungle fatigues instead of army-issue pajamas, boarded a plane in Kyoto, Japan, for Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California. It was snowing as he took off. “This is last day in the Orient for me perhaps forever,” he wrote. That single day lasted forty-one hours, as he flew east—from Japan to his final destination: Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco. At the bottom of the page for January 30, he wrote HOME. In all caps, stretching over two lines. That’s where his Vietnam diary ends.

“Your tour of duty is now behind you,” proclaimed an Army publication I found after Richard’s death in one of his files. “It has been a year of hard fighting—certainly a period in which the American soldier has performed in the best traditions of the US Army. You may leave this land of Vietnam—the jungles, the mountains, and coastal plains—with that inner satisfaction of knowing you have served the cause of free men everywhere.”

 Richard returned to the United States with two hand-tailored Hong Kong suits and a sports jacket; an Omega wristwatch; a pair of Sansui stereo speakers; his Canon FT SLR; a set of lenses for it; jaundiced skin; rising bilirubin; and exposure to Agent Orange, which took thirty-four years to do its work, gliding through his body darkly.

*****

Doctors at Camp Oji had predicted Richard’s hepatitis would quickly run its course. But it lingered in his body, requiring two full years for recovery. His was not the typical case. Nor was Richard’s prostate cancer. Once unleashed, it raced through his body, much faster than a typical case.

Usually prostate cancer is a slow-moving, treatable disease that strikes men over sixty-five. Richard’s urologist told us that often prostate cancer moves so slowly through men’s bodies that it’s not the cause of their deaths. Men with prostate cancer die of heart disease, stroke, or old age, often never knowing that they also had cancer.

Richard was diagnosed with prostate cancer at fifty-nine. His cancer was unusually aggressive and had already spread to bone when it was discovered. “No two ways about it,” his urologist told me after Richard’s death. “He had a very aggressive, very aggressive cancer.” Using the standard measurements for the disease—the balance between his PSA and Gleason score—Richard’s case seemed extremely rare. “I can think of just right off the bat—three people with a similar disease profile,” his urologist said. “Richard being one of them. In all my years of experience.”

What seemed inexplicable in 2003 now seems inevitable. Three years after Richard’s death, the University of California Davis and the VA Northern California Heath Care System released a study tracking 13,000 veterans over eight years. It concluded that exposure to Agent Orange doubled the likelihood of prostate cancer among Vietnam veterans. As one of the study’s authors pointed out, “This is a high-risk group.”

The study not only established a link between Agent Orange, Vietnam vets, and prostate cancer, but it documented common characteristics in this variation of the disease. The study concluded that prostate cancer strikes earlier—at a younger age— among Vietnam veterans. The disease is more aggressive—a higher grade cancer, leading to a higher Gleason score—and by the time the cancer is discovered, it’s four times more likely to be metastatic. Like Richard’s cancer.

His case corresponded in every way to the findings in this study.

But in 2003, his case seemed extraordinary. None of the doctors on Richard’s team considered his service in Vietnam a factor, despite the swift progression of his disease.

On our first appointment after Richard’s diagnosis, he asked his urologist the inevitable question: “How long do I have?”

 “Two to six years.”

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*****

The doctor’s prediction was accurate—two years, almost to the day.

 “I’m propped up beside R,“ I wrote in my journal on November 12, 2005. “He’s sleeping, breathing the fast and heavy rhythm he’s had throughout the autumn. His mouth is open, his hands, long and boney, are curved in over his shoulders. For the last few minutes, he’s sent out a kind of groan at about two-minute intervals. It’s another sign that his death is coming soon.”

Then he woke up and I wrote, “He’s awake. I’ll have to stop this.” It was my last entry before his death.

During that last week, Richard often said, “I don’t know what to do.” And I would offer suggestions— do you want a drink? do you want to eat? do you want to read? do you want me to read to you? I’d reach for a book and he’d wave me away.

“I don’t know what to do,” he’d repeat. And I didn’t know what to do for him.

He was restless well past midnight on the morning of November 13. He rattled when he breathed. Between one and two o’clock, he woke up, complaining that he needed to go the bathroom. I explained that he couldn’t get up, that he was wearing Depends, that he would just have to let the urine pass. Emily, who had come home from Germany in September, heard us and came downstairs. We gave him another dose of liquid Oxycodone to help him breathe. He was so weak he couldn’t drink from a straw and agitated by a nightmare.

“Graveyard…. Animals…,” he muttered. “I don’t want to kill anything.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Where do you think are you?”

Emily leaned nearer.

Richard shook his head. “It’s gone. I don’t remember.”

 The rattle in his lungs persisted, but he seemed to drift off to sleep. Then he whispered again, “I don’t know what to do with myself.”

With myself.

Suddenly, I understood. “Do you mean, you don’t know whether you want to stay or go?” I asked, fearing his answer yet knowing what it would be.

“I want to go,” he said.

“Then I think you should.”

I believe this was the last thing we said to each other.

I sent Emily up to bed, fished out his wedding ring from the ring holder on the dresser, and slipped it on his finger. Richard had stopped wearing it the week before, worried that his fingers had grown so thin the ring would slip off while he was sleeping. But I wanted him to wear the ring on his way out of this world. It had visibly bound us together for twenty-six years and might somehow bind us still when he slipped to the other side.

I kissed him, turned off the light, and thought I’d lie awake, listening to his rattle. But I dropped off to sleep. Almost instantly.

It was the silence, I think, that woke me at four o’clock that morning.

His eyes were partially open, so was his mouth. But his face looked peaceful and at first, I thought he was resting, perhaps still breathing. I laid my head on his chest, placed my hand over his mouth to find his breath.

But nothing. Richard was gone.

I kissed him again, held his hand, whispered I loved him.

Then I went upstairs to tell Emily.

*****

Richard’s ashes came home in the urn he selected, along with an American flag, neatly folded in a ceremonial triangle. It was the flag, the surprise of it and all it represented—not the heavy, silver urn—that made me cry. I stared down at the flag—a folded triangle of three and a half stars in a blue field—proud of Richard’s sense of honor that had sent him to Vietnam’s jungles in 1968, stricken with my own failure to understand then how that senseless war could touch us all. In unimaginable ways.

Now fifty years since Richard’s inevitable disease took root, I see even more clearly the haunting shadow of Vietnam and all it continues to represent. Still, I find myself drawn to that Winston Churchill line that helped see me through Richard’s illness: “For myself I am an optimist—it does not seem to be much use being anything else.” I can only hope that Vietnam’s legacy will ultimately unite us and give us the courage to work toward a more civil, enlightened, and less violent world.

Holly Atkinson