Roy Exum: My Memorial Day Tale

Sunday, May 25, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

When you share a room with somebody for 17 years you get to know them pretty well. I lived with my older brother during the time we grew up and after we reached high school, we didn’t exactly sit around talking about trigonometry. We were more “action guys,” with guns in every corner of the room. I had a quick Corvette and Jonathan, another brother, came home one day with a Triumph motorcycle that made every day “Speed Week.” Yes, we lived life large with a lot of laughs.

When Kinch – his was an old family name – got to be a senior, he admitted to me the summer before his last year he wasn’t anywhere near ready for college. Instead his plan was to enlist in the Marine Corps, an organization he really admired that, incidentally, has rekindled the urge for an education in many a man. So when school let out about this time in 1966, my brother left almost immediately for the Recruit Depot in Parris Island, S.C.

All our friends laughed at him, especially with the unpopular Viet Nam war being what it was, but when he came back from boot camp on his way to Southeast Asia, he had already changed. The child was gone. He was focused, took immeasurable pride in his step, and wasn’t scared about what lay-in-wait at all. “I’m a United States Marine and, when you become one, you’ll never be scared of anything again.”

Today is Memorial Day and our Veterans Administration is a colossal mess. As I think about my brother, who died 10 years ago this week, I have to share with you that he was indeed scared of one thing when he died – our Veterans Administration. He loathed the way our nation treated our veterans, this back over 30 years ago, and the hatred he had bottled up inside after what his veteran buddies were forced by a blind Congress and uncaring Presidents to endure was not to be mentioned in his presence because he could still fight. I mention this just so you’ll know.

Kinch did two tours in Viet Nam. The first changed his life forever. He then re-upped because he was worried I’d be drafted and, back then, any two brothers that were Marines weren’t to be assigned in Viet Nam at the same time. As it turned out, I didn’t get past Fort McPherson before I was declared medically exempt but Kinch never mentioned it, other than to say he would have served four or five tours with his much-beloved Marines before he would have allowed my “boots” to ever walk in the same heat and dust he had endured.

For as long as I knew him before he died too young at age 56, he would never talk about Viet Nam. I mean, not a peep. Oh, I heard stories, some funny but mostly sad, and I knew he was one of two who finally made it back after one particularly bloody and brutal jungle patrol. Legend has it he won out with a sheath knife but that’s never been confirmed.

A true story was he carried the badly-mangled body of his best friend five miles before he could go no further. He hid the body in the jungle and, days later, led a platoon back to recover his pal’s remains so his family could properly bury him at his home in the United States. Kinch got to accompany the body but never told his buddy’s folks what actually happened, returning to Viet Nam after the funeral. That’s who my brother was.

I also knew people had spit on him when he wore his Marine uniform through the San Francisco airport when he finally came stateside, his chest full of medals for valor. Instead he ordered his guys “Eyes forward. Say not a word!” He also reeked of post-traumatic syndrome, we just didn’t know what it was.

He carried some thick scars and a good bit of shrapnel around after he got out of the Corps but the worst thing was the fact that during the years he was in the jungle, he claimed his squad was constantly doused with Agent Orange. He said it actually dripped from his boonie hat time and time again and claimed it wasn’t just him, but hundreds of Marines that had no cover when our airplanes would rain the now-illegal chemicals down to kill vegetation.

Ten years ago last spring he was living a happy hermit’s life on his north Florida farm when he called to say his lungs were real painful. This was long after he had sworn off the V.A., like many veterans who can afford private health care have done, and he had a very good Blue Cross-Blue Shield plan. So we found a widely-respected lung expert at Emory and they “scoped” his lungs, unable to find a thing.

My brother apologized and drove back to Florida. Two weeks later we got a frantic phone call that he’d been rushed to the hospital in Panama City. They got him stabilized and pain-free before we could get there and that very night about 30 or 40 of his fishing buddies gathered up fish, shrimp, slaw and the biggest feast you ever saw so they could roll his wheelchair out into the parking lot and “throw down.” Everybody loved him.

That next day they scoped his lungs again – they were clear – but this time the quizzical doctor ordered a MRI and a CAT scan. So I was standing by the bed when the doctor came by to tell him cancer was everywhere except his lungs. “Well, I’ve been through worse than this,” Kinch grinned, “and we’ll figure a move or two, I can promise you that!”

That night I went and found a good steak house. He ate like a horse, using his pocket knife with flair, I laughingly recall. The next day I had to be back home for a real estate closing, promising I’d return the minute the papers were signed, and we’d hatch a plan. I got up early, around 4 a.m., and went by his room to read the paper before I left and he was awake. “I kinda’ figured you be by,” he said. “I’d sure love a Coca-Cola … “

So we laughed over small talk for about 30 minutes, like we used to do before leaving for school many years before, and soon it was time for me to get going. I told him I’d be back before dark but not to worry, we’d gotten out of some pinches like this before. When I reached the door, he had one last thing to say. “Hey … thank you, old buddy … thank you.”

I guess I was finally able to quit crying about the Alabama state line. That same afternoon, as I got ready to head back to Florida, my brother died peacefully and without pain just one day after he learned he had cancer. He knew, and my family will never forget, the Agent Orange baths he so dreaded in Viet Nam had gotten him. To my knowledge, nothing was ever done to warn or save him from a premature death. That’s the way the dice roll sometimes.

Because of Kinch and what a legion of other men and women who once defended our country have told me, I am assured the Veterans Administration is a whole lot worse than this latest dust-up that has purportedly made the Commander In Chief “madder than hell.” My brother died 10 years ago and it is well-chronicled the Veterans Administration dysfunction started long before that.

The Obama administration has asked for $153 billion (with a ‘b’) for the Veterans Administration this year. That figure is 50 percent higher than it was just five years ago and the bumbling bureaucracy has 300,000 Americans on its payroll. I believe it would be much cheaper and far more effective to issue our veterans some sort of Medicare-like healthcare device where they could use private hospitals and doctors of their choice. My best argument? They have earned it.

For the record, I am not bitter or angry. I just wish the ending for Kinch could have been handled a little better. I know what he went through in Viet Nam and afterwards. I think he earned more than he got. This must be fixed.

royexum@aol.com


Kinch's grave
Kinch's grave

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