Bill Crist shares his stories
The military loves rank and insignia. Why not designate worthy veterans as Top Brass Volunteers? I'd nominate Bill Crist.
Bill is a fixture at the National Veterans Art Museum, where Grady's work is part of the permanent collection. When I gave a reading from "Boocoo Dinky Dow" at the Chicago museum last spring, Bill was my guest veteran reader. (Because Grady died in 2011, I like to have a fellow join me to bring a male voice to the telling of his story.)
Bill did more than read passages from the memoir. He talked about his own experiences with the Army's 25th Infantry in Vietnam. He told his stories with flair, conviction and a charming lack of political correctness. Afterwards, he gave the audience a tour of "The Things They Carried," an exhibit of military gear that he organized and helped finance.
It struck me that Bill's greatest contribution is his willingness to talk about his own difficult journey since Vietnam. He told me some of his story after the museum reading. We met up at a neighborhood bar. He insisted on buying me a cocktail, but ordered a soft drink for himself.
"I was an alcoholic for 15 years," Bill told me. "I was just trying to kill the bad memories in my head. Now I've been sober for 15 years."
Post-traumatic stress was affecting him as soon as he came back, in 1971, from a world of sniper fire and body count competitions. Before being drafted, he'd started college. "I couldn't go back to school after 'Nam. I wanted to be a history teacher, but gave that up."
"PTSD Wheelchair of the Mind" by Bill Crist
He found work in a warehouse, as a truck driver, as a salesman. Over the years, his stress piled up like so many sandbags on his soul. "I've been to Vietnam in my mind more than 300 times," he said. Eventually, he ended up at Hines VA Hospital, where he spent 50 days in the psychiatric ward. Art therapy was part of his treatment. One day, "a therapist asked us to draw something in our minds that was bothering us."
Bill responded with "colors that kind of like to jump off the page and go after you." His illustrations of soldiers and veterans show troubled faces, bloody limbs, American flags. They ended up in the museum collection (see them here), even though "I never intended for anyone to see those drawings."
Bill has lectured at Loyola University about his post-war trauma. When he takes student groups through the museum, he shares what happened during the war. The kids love trying on the rucksack that he donated to the exhibit. They like his candid recollections, such as the fact he didn't stand up when he had to pee in Vietnam because that was a sure way for a soldier to become a target.
It's a tough sell to get veterans to volunteer and share their stories with the public, Bill said. He'd be glad to mentor anyone who'd like to soldier up and give it a try.
Ross and Maureen Ramirez
We use "heart of stone" to describe the absence of emotion. Yet the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., is stone that practically throbs with emotion. Sadness, memories and gratitude converge at the reflective granite. That's why I wanted Grady Myers's memoir "Boocoo Dinky Dow: My short, crazy Vietnam War" to be among the many items left there in remembrance.
My sisters Maureen and Angela did the honors for me this summer. Angela lives in D.C.; Maureen and her family were visiting from Texas. Her husband Albert captured the occasion with these photos. Above, 10-year-old Ross and Maureen are holding the book below the name of Lt. George Callan. George, Joseph Strucel and Antonio Garcia died in the March 1969 ambush in which Grady was severely wounded.
Respect reigns at The Wall
Ross had heard of the war, but didn't know much about it. He didn't know so many Americans had died in Vietnam. Like everyone who visits, he was impressed by the 58,286 names engraved in the granite. He also noticed how quiet and respectful the visitors were.
"I had been to the memorial before but was still amazed at how far The Wall goes ... and how many are honored there," Maureen wrote to me later. "After reading 'Boocoo Dinky Dow,' it was more of a personal experience as the book gave a better idea of just what the soldiers like Grady and George went through. It was a hot, humid day and construction/detours to the memorial were frustrating, but nothing in comparison to what the soldiers experienced."
Angela had visited several times since 1992. "When I've been before, it was just so crowded. But this time, there was hardly anyone there," she said. She was grateful not to be jostled by crowds, but added: "I just don't want people to forget." That doesn't seem to be happening. The Vietnam Memorial is 13th among the country's most-visited historic sites.
People leave many things at the Wall, from yellowing letters to teddy bears. On the day that "Boocoo Dinky Dow" was propped up against the granite, it was momentarily alone because visitors' offerings had just been gathered up for the archives. For a touching account of the archive process, be sure to read The Things They Left Behind: Artifacts from the Vietnam Memorial.
Julie Titone is co-author of the Grady Myers memoir "Boocoo Dinky Dow: My short, crazy Vietnam War." Grady was an M-60 machine gunner in The U.S. Army's Company C’s 2nd Platoon, 1st Battalion, 8th Regiment, 4th Infantry Division in late 1968 and early 1969. His Charlie Company comrades knew him as Hoss. Thoughts, comments? Send Julie an email.