Commentary: When a combat veteran dies

February 16, 2012

By David Magallanes / Guest contributor

We read about them in the news all too often: the combat veteran who dies eating lunch or drinking coffee when an errant vehicle rams through the wall of the building. Or when he’s at a party celebrating his homecoming and gets into a fight, usually trying to defend a friend when something like a “friendly discussion” over something as trite and meaningless as the superiority of one football team over another becomes heated and then fatal.

Sometimes less tragic ironies occur —  events that we’d never read about. Like when my father, a combat veteran of World War II, who along with the other soldiers had suffered considerable trauma in the Normandy landing, the Battle of the Bulge and other points in between throughout Europe, was shot in the leg by a robber during one of his daily walks around the neighborhood near Los Angeles decades later (my dad told the robber to “go to hell”).

One of my elementary school friends, Peter, was a young man who went into the military about the same time that I did. He seemed to enjoy talking about the fights he and his brother used to get into with the packs of bad boys that roamed his neighborhood. Peter and I used to spend hours talking about the careers to which we were aspiring. After my military service, I went on and pursued the career I’d declared, but Peter died in the rice fields of Vietnam when his helicopter went down.

Another friend from the same school, Frank, was a “fun friend” throughout the early years. He was goofy and obsessed with Mae West, a cinematic sex symbol whose career spanned decades from vaudeville to the 1970s. Frank was also naïvely determined to purchase a Mercedes Benz as his first car — and he did — all the warnings and accusations of being “unrealistic” from a mutual friend’s father notwithstanding. When I met Frank’s mother, I understood why Frank’s grip on the practical world was tenuous. But then Frank stunned all who knew him when, as we young men all contemplated our immediate futures in face of the draft that was sweeping our peers into military service (unless they escaped to Canada first), he announced that he was joining the U.S. Marines.

Our jaws dropped with a near-audible thud to the hard floor. Frank? A Marine?! We just couldn’t envision our silly but lovable friend becoming a hardened warrior. But he did. And he went to Vietnam. And he saw combat. And he survived. He came back goofy and silly and in one piece, but still … there was something different about Frank. He silliness was more measured, his “look” was different, the way he talked wasn’t quite what we’d remembered hearing.

Frank died soon after of an illness that was never adequately described to me. It might have been Agent Orange. I’ll never know.

And then there’s Doug, my brother-in-law, who died last year. Doug was a few months younger than me, married to one of my sisters, Jeanette, for over 30 years. Doug, too, had been in Vietnam. He, too, had flown in helicopters — in his case, firing on the enemy below and rescuing fallen U.S. troops.

Doug used to tease me about being scholarly. But then he teased all of us, though not unbearably. That was how he told us he loved us.

Doug was a carpenter. And a damn good one, at that. I never quite told him how much I admired his skills, though I always expressed interest and delight as he would drive me around his town, showing me with understated pride the projects he had undertaken and completed.

This combat veteran was burly and rhetorically combative when we got into the realm of politics. But I always give slack to the men and women who have been in combat, knowing that they’re going to see things in ways that the rest of us don’t. Still, Doug and I never let politics poison our relationship.

As intense as Doug’s views on politics may have been, and as much as he must have had a hard core to endure the combat missions in which he had participated, he was an exceedingly kind man. He treated my sister like a princess and welcomed my demented mother into his home for several years before her death, despite the enormous difficulty of caring for her. Though most of that care fell on my sister’s shoulders, Doug used to graciously invite my mom to go out with them to places where my mother’s behavior wasn’t particularly “normal.” Years ago, when I used to take my wife and young children to visit Doug and Jeanette, Doug would go out of his way to ensure the kids had a good time, taking them out dune-buggying or out for ice cream.

Fast-forwarding several decades, Doug was diagnosed with cellulitis when the tissues under his arm started swelling. When the antibiotics didn’t seem to help, further tests determined, to our shock and surprise, that he had stage four melanoma. Almost without warning, it seemed, this vigorous construction worker who built homes for the rich and famous in the Southern California desert started to slouch as he walked, became weak and a mere shadow of who he had been weeks before, and then finally lay dying in his home.

Agent Orange? Very likely, though the government denies it.

As Doug’s life was expiring, I sat next to him on his bed. We talked about the movie we were watching on his TV. Then he started to tell me his last wishes. He wanted to be cremated.

Doug had accepted his awful fate. He had told my sister days earlier that he wanted to live, and he fought to do so as bravely as he did in the air above the rice paddies. But now, as he talked weakly, I could see that he was resigned. He asked me to make sure my sister was going to be OK. I assured him that she would be. As I was saying goodbye — forever — I overcame my male hang-ups and told him I loved him. He grunted in a way that told me that he was telling me the same.

Fittingly, Doug was buried with full military honors. The flag was folded in an intricate ceremony all unto itself, then handed to my devastated sister as I held her. He was supremely honored with three volleys by seven service members — the 21-gun salute, a tradition with origins in the Anglo-Saxon empire. “Taps” was played in its forlorn glory, a call to the sleep of death of another of America’s soldiers.

Goodbye, Doug. I salute you. I’ll miss you the rest of my life.

— David Magallanes is embarking on a speaking and writing career whose purpose is to promote and facilitate the attainment of the American Dream.  As an optimistic American of Mexican descent and an educator in college mathematics, he brings a unique perspective to issues of our day. He may be contacted for speaking requests or for commentary at


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