After my ex-husband Richard Spelts died on July 15 of this year, I helped my daughter Melanie–the only child from our marriage–clean out his apartment. With his only other living relatives in California and Oklahoma, it was her task to responsibly dispose of his belongings. Rummaging through the personal effects of someone who’s died, especially in my case because of our previous 14 years of marriage, I felt as if I was prying. Richard had remarried, but his wife Joanne preceded him in death. As I shuffled through dozens of photographs of the two of them with their friends, he seemed settled … content.
Richard had served in Vietnam from 1967 through 1968. We had married in 1969 and like thousands of veterans who had returned from the battlefield, he too struggled to shed the demons of war: nightmares, flashbacks, overmedication of alcohol or drugs, sporadic employment, and marital strains. Back then the Veterans Administration had just begun recognizing PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) as a consequence of war that required treatment. Often I had felt hopelessly unprepared to help him toward wholeness.
Richard was a tunnel rat with the 1st Infantry Division. Throughout our marriage he rarely spoke to me about his service. In 1982 he had traveled to Washington, DC for the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and when he returned to Doylestown, a weight began to lift from his soul. When I take into account all our years of marriage, then leap forward to his life frozen in those photographs, I realized the support, love or comfort that I had offered was not enough.
By the time I’d reached the basement separating what to keep and what to toss, I picked up a plastic bag filled with straw baskets, threw it on the trash pile and discovered a tattered box, corners separated and damp, suffocating under that trash bag. I opened the lid and there they were. Letters he’d written while in Vietnam. I’d never seen them, unaware they existed. The letters must’ve been saved by his mother and when Richard and Melanie had flown out to California several years ago to visit his dad and siblings, maybe I guess, that is when they were given to him.
I brought the box home and carefully separated the letters to dry. Many of the envelopes and the letters inside, were difficult to read because the ink had bled into the thin paper. This was sad. Why, I wondered would he choose to carry these to the basement and forget they were there? Since then, with the best of care I’ve attempted to place them in the order in which he had written them. As I strained my eyes to decipher postal dates on the envelopes, I couldn’t help but recall those brief moments he had shared bits and pieces of his ‘Nam service to me. Wounded twice, his letters while hospitalized, described his injury and his treatment. Always he opened every one of his letters with, “I hope this finds all of you well. As for me I’m ok.”
Richard was 70 when he died of complications from cancers that ravaged his body. In this day and age, 70 is young. However, the cancers from Agent Orange, which Richard had been exposed to had also taken away thousands of other men and women who served in-country during that war. Richard was diagnosed last year with one of the three Agent Orange cancers approved for VA disability. Somehow, according to the caregiver and friend who oversaw all of his medical treatment, a denial was issued which kept him from increasing his 30% disability to 100%.
Numerous times over the years whenever I learn of another Vietnam Veteran who’s cancer took him or her away, I recall a book I’d read in the early 80s, a testimony to the slowness of the Veterans Administration to recognize this horrible killer as an approved disability. If you can find this book, get it.
WAITING FOR AN ARMY TO DIE by Fred A. Wilcox. Published in 1983, he writes about the veterans, families, physicians, scientist and lawyers who dealt with this disease.
Today, Men and Women Veterans are reflecting on their service to our Nation. I think of all of you this day, a special one that Richard, now at peace was not able to.