One final wish: Vietnam veteran buried in Arlington
FARGO — Albert Myers had three wishes in life: to build a log cabin, to publish his experience of the Vietnam War, and to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
He built the cabin in Casselton in the 1980s. His second wife, June, had his book published in 2011 as Alzheimer’s disease ate his memory. And Friday, he got his third wish.
“It brings me to tears,” said his step-daughter, Jeannine Johnson. “It’s exactly what he deserves and should have.”
It’s been a long road to Arlington for Myers, who died in February at the age of 66. For months, the urn containing his ashes sat in his second wife’s townhouse, next to a folded American flag and the helmet he wore as a Navy Corpsman in Vietnam.
As Myers reaches his final resting place, his family remembers a man with a sharp sense of humor and an urge to help everyone he met.
“He is a hero,” Johnson said. “He saved life, after life, after life.”
Helping at home, abroad
Myers was a beacon of selflessness in a war with atrocities on both sides. Sent to Vietnam as a medic shortly before his 20th birthday, he quickly bonded with the men he was responsible for keeping safe.
“I became their doctor, confessor, father, best friend and guidance counselor,” he wrote in his memoir, “Mankind Man Unkind.” “They looked to me when they needed someone to talk to or to patch them up.”
The book, which Myers first wrote by hand shortly after he returned from war, shows the young man quickly seeing the Vietnamese not as enemies but as people – and patients.
Myers helped set up a children’s hospital in Dang Ha, Vietnam. His book is full of pictures of the children he treated there.
He often told his children stories about those patients, said his daughter, Aryca Myers. Unlike many veterans, Myers never had trouble discussing the war.
“It’s funny,” Aryca Myers said. “We still know the names of certain friends of his in Vietnam.”
Myers sometimes had to deal with what he called the mental casualties of war: men who had seen so much brutality they became numb to it and started lashing out.
In his book, Myers wrote about a soldier kicking the severed head of a Vietnamese man to dislodge his gold tooth. Myers cursed at the soldier until he left the body alone.
“It’s a shame that people are as cruel as in war,” he wrote.
Amid the violence, Myers wrote about pining for his girlfriend and pooling his money with other soldiers to buy cases of beer.
But Myers was still at war, and he saw his share of death. He was sitting in a crater, reading a copy of “Rosemary’s Baby” and waiting for an air strike to end, when a mortar exploded. The man next to him took a piece of shrapnel in an artery and bled out.
Myers treated his fellow soldiers as best as he could, coughing out blood and pieces of teeth and barely noticing his own leg injuries. Doctors later attributed his Alzheimer’s to the head trauma from the incident, June Myers said.
After coming home, Myers used the GI Bill to attend North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota. He became a physical therapist, a profession he would remain in until his diagnosis.
Myers had a way with his patients. He’d often stop by their homes on weekends for extra treatment, Aryca Myers said.
“He was always really generous with his gift,” she said.
He eventually took a job at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Fargo, where June Myers worked as a nurse. Both were divorced with two children each; they married in 1982.
Joker, artist, student
It’s clear that Myers was always a joker. One photo in June Myers’ townhome shows a young man smirking at the camera. Another depicts a human figure made out of plaster cast he once left on a bridge in New York, expecting a flurry of reporters to come photograph it.
“Nobody ever came,” June Myers said, laughing.
He was an artist, too: Several framed drawings of birds sit on one wall in the townhome. Photos of his childhood home show drawings of Mickey Mouse and Ringo Starr on the walls. His book contains a number of poems.
Myers was also a lifetime learner. Fascinated with Vietnamese and Chinese culture, he celebrated Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, with cultural groups in Fargo on more than one occasion, Aryca Myers said.
A city boy, Myers jumped at the chance to help Richard Muscha, his neighbor in Casselton, with farming duties. He was also the only person who could fix Muscha’s ailing back.
Even Alzheimer’s couldn’t stop Myers’s sense of humor. Shortly after the diagnosis, Muscha asked him where he had been the night before.
“I had an Alzheimer’s meeting, but I can’t remember what it was about,” Myers joked.
A long, slow goodbye
June and Albert Myers traveled to Vietnam in 2000, revisiting sites from the war. The children’s hospital had been torn down, but Myers met the family of a girl who had been a patient there.
The Alzheimer’s diagnosis came later that year, when Myers was 53. He was most worried about June Myers because she would have to take care of him, she said.
Shortly after the diagnosis, Aryca Myers took a job overseas. She felt guilty, she said, because she wouldn’t be able to spend as much time with her father.
Aryca Myers choked up when she recounted what her father said after hearing the news: “Oh, Aryca, that’s exactly what you want to do.”
Myers spent the next 14 years fighting a losing battle with the disease. He retired, but stayed busy volunteering at the Fargo Air Museum and visiting local schools to tell children about his war experiences.
Slowly, Myers lost the ability to speak. Johnson had to help June Myers build a fence around the yard to keep him from wandering off.
Johnson said watching her father-in-law deteriorate was “the longest goodbye ever.” But through it all, she said, he never forgot who June was.
June Myers gathered the manuscripts for his book and worked tirelessly to find a publisher. “Mankind Man Unkind” was released in 2011, largely unaltered from what Myers set down when he returned from war.
“As things kind of faded, we just wanted to be there to finish the story for him,” Johnson said.
By then, the disease had Myers firmly in its grip. He had moved into assisted living and couldn’t speak. But he seemed pleased when June Myers showed him the book, she said.
Since his death, some of Myers’ family members say they still feel his presence. June Myers recently bought a house in Golden Valley, Minn. She and Johnson worried about how much money to spend.
“We just talked to Al,” Johnson said, “and he told us it would be okay.”
This afternoon, Myers will be buried among hundreds of thousands of fellow soldiers. He won’t be alive to see his last wish fulfilled, but that doesn’t bother Aryca Myers.
“Oh, I think he knows,” she said. “And I think he’s delighted. I think he’s really happy.”