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OpinionCommentary

Mourning war heroes

A man says a prayer during the Memorial

A man says a prayer during the Memorial Day services at Calverton National Cemetery. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

But it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, and “Chuck him out, the brute!

But he’s “Hero of ’is county” when the guns begin to shoot

— Rudyard Kipling

Carl Terpak was a war hero who earned three purple hearts and is buried in Arlington Cemetery. He was raised in a good home in upstate New York. A devout Catholic, he neither smoked nor drank before he entered the Marine Corps at age 18. During training, he proved himself a superb Marine who was anxious to fight for his country. He was soon given this opportunity. It came during the Tet Offensive.

Shortly after his arrival in Vietnam, his company was ordered to relief a company of the 9th Marine Regiment then heavily engaged with a large enemy force along the Demilitarized Zone. Many in Terpak’s unit were killed, and he was detailed the next morning to retrieve the corpses of his comrades. Most had been horribly mutilated — some with their sex organs amputated and crudely stuffed into their mouths. After that, he and his M-60 machine gun became a killing machine.

Terpak was introduced to marijuana and alcohol after his first encounter with the enemy. His first use of heavier drugs came 50 years ago, on Memorial Day of 1968 when his arm was almost taken off by an enemy grenade. A corpsman injected him with morphine, and he was transferred to a hospital ship. Within a month, he was back in a combat zone.

When he was discharged from the Marines, Terpak was an addict in physical and mental pain from his wounds and the trauma of battle. When he hit the streets, he tried to obliterate his experiences with alcohol, heroin and methamphetamines. When I met him, he was in federal prison for trafficking in narcotics. He used more than he sold.

When the Vietnam War was over, half of the veterans with a diagnosis similar to Terpak’s had been arrested — mostly for co-occurring drug related crimes. Many suffered from undiagnosed and untreated combat-related PTSD, and tragically, many were issued “less-than-honorable discharges” from the service. These discharges, called “Bad Paper,” came after little or no due process and carried the stigma of criminal conviction and dishonor. The discharges contributed to homelessness, substance abuse and suicide.

It seems to be an endless story. Many of those who spoil for war, never fought in one. Our government seems to be able to find funding for more and better weapons, but not so much when it comes to taking care of our veterans. According to a recent report, more than 300,000 veterans may have died while waiting for health care. Twice that number are still waiting and that is not counting the needed care for those veterans suffering from mental disorders — many imprisoned for minor offenses and in need of treatment.

We must be reminded that more combat troops have served and are serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars than served in Vietnam. The latest statistics show that an estimated 1 in 5 veterans returning from those wars suffers from PTSD and to date more than 25,000 combat soldiers were discharged from the Army for misconduct related to PTSD or traumatic brain injury. Every day, 20 veterans commit suicide.

On this Memorial Day, we mourn our dead heroes, but it is also important to remember the responsibility we owe to veterans like Carl Terpak. They were not killed in battle, but died a different kind of death as the result of war.

Sol Wachtler, a former chief judge of New York State who was an Army sergeant during the Korean War, is a distinguished adjunct professor at Touro Law School.

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