A Five Year Labor of Love

In 2011 I published two columns supporting better healthcare for veterans. A Vietnam vet wrote to me, expressing his thanks and beginning what was to become a much cherished and, often, painful friendship. Shell of a Man is a tribute to my friend... a most extraordinary man.

He calls himself Robert L. We’ve never met. His face is but a ghostly image on a blog page that carries his name. I hear his voice only through the emails we exchange and, yet, I hear his voice in my sleep, when awake... all the time. He has touched me in ways I never thought possible. Shell of a Man is Robert's story - told with his permission. It is a story that demands to be told. More important, it is a story that needs to be heard.

Robert L tasted the prejudice of a Southern upbringing. He was conceived without love to a 16 year-old-girl and given away to foster parents. He picked his first bag of cotton at the age of two. At the age of 18, he joined the Army and was sent to Vietnam. For more than 14 months, Robert witnessed and took part in actions no human being should have to experience. He became hard. He lost faith. He saw death and wished to die.

On March 23, 1970, Robert came home. He was different and so was the country of his birth. While he succeeded in his professional life, his personal life was spiraling out of control until the past and the present blended into a nightmare from which he could not escape. Then, a woman and a child gave him back a reason to live. He became a husband, a father, a law enforcement officer, a union president and a janitor. He gave his heart to a woman, his soul to his child, dedication to his country and loyalty to his employers. They gave little in return.

Robert L is smart, funny, kind, loving and scared. He is alone even in a roomful of people. He has known some joy but the memory is lost to depression. He has tasted the cold steel barrel of a gun and chosen not to swallow a bullet. He has been imprisoned in his own mind for years. He has survived… but at what cost. Robert is a real person. He is one man. He is many men.