The vicissitudes of war: Bill Ebeltoft's life post-Vietnam
Earlier this month, an obituary in The Dickinson Press about a Vietnam veteran received nationwide attention.
Written by his brother Paul, Chief Warrant Officer 2 William Ebeltoft’s obituary begins: “Not everyone who lost his life in Vietnam died there.”
In it, he describes the hardships his brother faced as he struggled to cope with the aftereffects of the war — an all too common story for veterans, particularly those of the Vietnam era.
Prior to his brother’s return, Paul understood that his brother may come back different.
“I remember very pointedly the lottery draft system, and I remember very pointedly the people who left to go to Canada, and I remember the reasons why a low draft number was considered a death sentence, so I understood enough, even though I did not serve. My number was 218 … Bill would be affected, and I would not interfere with the way he responded to his service.”
He thinks his brother would have done well in a military career, generally, had it not been for Vietnam.
“I think Vietnam made him seek the comfort of home, as opposed to a career in the military. He just needed to be in a place where he felt loved and respected and supported, and that was home,” Paul said.
Sadly, Bill’s country did not make him feel loved, respected or supported upon his return. Bill returned to the US not with his unit, but alone. He flew coach with his uniform on, was spit on and was treated poorly in airports.
“I don’t know exactly on the flight what happened, but I get the impression that he was not honored for his service but derided for it — by some,” Paul said. “That can’t help but make you feel a little less enthused about your service, when the people you thought you were working for didn’t share any pride or thankfulness or even common decency.”
Bill was given no counseling when he came back from Vietnam. He went to work in Fort Lewis in Washington, where Paul visited him.
“He was just there with other people like himself who had various degrees of trauma because of the war but they were just expected to get up in the morning, do their job, then meet at the officers’ club when they were done — that was their counseling, meet at the officers’ club,” Paul said.
Paul is confident his brother had post-traumatic stress disorder.
“He experienced terrible things, and although the diagnosis was pretty much not existent at the time … If you withheld yourself, well, that was your right, and they didn’t get very excited about discovering why,” he said.
Paul said that Bill’s PTSD made him “jumpy” and that loud, unexpected noises affected him.
“He coped with the recurrence of the war in his mind by trying to numb it. He drank … a lot, and he drank indiscriminately,” Paul said. “He had a bout with an inflammatory disease, and he took some very powerful medication. They told him very directly and very forcefully, ‘Bill, you cannot drink while you’re on this medication. It is dangerous to do so. It will affect you.’ He drank anyway.”
Samantha Tupy, a clinical psychologist with the Fargo VA, said people with PTSD have a higher risk of developing alcohol use disorder.
“It tends to be a maladaptive way of coping, especially in our older folks that are Vietnam era. There wasn’t as much education about mental health at that time,” she said.
Bill’s alcohol misuse lead to the development of a type of dementia called Korsakoff’s syndrome.
“In Korsakoff’s, there’s no real short-term memory,” Tupy said. “You could interact with them, leave the room, come back and they may not remember you. It’s a pretty awful dementia to have.”
By the mid-1980s, Bill was starting to have psychotic breaks.
“He was thinking he was back in Vietnam. A general was going to be coming to pick him up. He was going to fly a set of troops into the jungle. He was having periods where he just wasn’t here. He was there,” Paul said.
Tupy refers to such an experience as disassociation, which can be mild or severe. On the far end of the spectrum, which Paul seemingly experienced, the person no longer knows where they actually are.
“They’re no longer present in reality as we are. They’re completely back in that memory. When that happens, which is a little more rare, they actually start acting out their traumas,” Tupy said.
Bill’s parents tried their best to help him with his dissociations and drinking. Over the next 10 years, they took Bill to the best programs they could find.
“They tried so hard to bring him back, and it just was not to be,” Paul said. “It got to the point where he was more gone than with us. He was elsewhere. He was in the war. That would cause him to drink more ...It was a long, slow glide path to where he was, and the glide path continued downward until the end.”
In 1994, Bill’s family placed him in a veterans home in Columbia Falls, Mont.
“Initially he was somewhat confused as to why he was there. He would tell me, ‘I don’t know why I’m here. ‘There’s people here who are half a bubble off’ — that’s the way he would put it,” Paul said. “Then he got to believe that he was there for tests ... and then it became his home.”
It was Bill’s home for 26 years, until he died on Dec. 15.
“They took such good care of him, my God,” Paul said. “Those nurses and CNAs and support staff, they deserve a medal the size of a soup plate. It wouldn’t have been possible for my parents or me to give Bill up for 26 years to an institution but for the fact that it was a place like that.”
Paul remembered visiting his brother. Paul and his wife would take Bill out to eat, to bowl, to shoot pool, to play cards, but after about four hours, he’d be ready to go home.
“We’d bring him back and when he walked through the door, he’d say, ‘ Well, hello everyone.’ He’d call out to a nurse and the nurse would call out to him … Then he’d say, ‘Well, goodbye. I’m going to go down to the smokeshack. We’ll maybe see you tomorrow.’ And he was off, so you just didn’t get the feeling that you were leaving him in an institution but rather among people who loved and enjoyed him, and they really did, for 26 years. It’s not a life that you and I would have enjoyed, but Bill’s mental condition allowed him to be happily confused there,” Paul said.
Paul said his brother’s dementia was complicated.
“He viewed himself as he was in 1969, but he stuck everyone else in a pigeonhole that may or may not have been ’69, may have been the last time that he saw them.”
His sons, Dave and Robbie, were 14 and 15 when Bill went to Columbia Falls. They went through school and college and didn’t see him again until they were in their 30s with established careers and families.
“It was particularly interesting with my youngest son who by the time he had gone out to see Bill had married and had a beard and looked every bit as 31 or 32 years old as he was at the time, and Bill saw him and recognized him immediately,” Paul recalled. “They got to talking and Dave took about a picture and said, ‘This is my wife.’ And Bill said, ‘My God, how can you be 14 and be married?’ He was just aghast at this little boy who was married, and here was this man in front of him.”
In Bill’s mind, “No one dies. Everyone is happy.”
Paul recalled reminding his brother, without thinking, that someone he asked about had died.
“I said, ‘Oh, gosh, Bill. He died, you know?’ And Bill said, ‘You’re wrong. I just saw him a week ago.’ And Bill hadn’t seen him for 20 years at that time,” Paul said. “He was just stuck somewhere, and it was mostly in the late ’60s and early ’70s when he had fast cars and dated beautiful women.”
Tupy said it’s the long-term memories that remain.
“It’s those earlier memories when you’re a younger adult — those are still there and so often times people with dementia will think maybe they’re 18 years old but really they’re 95 or they think their nurse is their daughter or maybe their wife or their mother. It’s this lapse in time in their own mind,” she said.
Paul remembers Bill as a man who once had so much promise.
“It’s a sadness that we’ll never know what Bill could have accomplished but for the vicissitudes of war and his reaction to it … There’s no question that the shot that brought my brother down was fired by the war in Vietnam.”
If you or someone you know is struggling to cope with PTSD, more help is available than when Bill left the service. Visit www.ptsd.va.gov for more information.