In 1977, I had a friend that was opening a new business in Los Angeles. He needed signs made, so he asked his best friend to fly in from Anchorage, Alaska, to do the work. That was how I met Pete, a Vietnam veteran, who served four tours as a paratrooper. I only knew this because my friend told me.
Pete never talked about the war. He was uncomfortable around people, and had moved to Anchorage within a year of coming back to the world. He lived a quiet life as a sign painter, and spent his time off in the woods, hunting, fishing, and guiding others. Mostly, he spent his time alone. He liked to sit in a tree blind. When I met him, he had long since stopped killing the bears, but he loved to just sit and watch them. It gave him peace.
Coming to L.A. to do those signs was very difficult for Pete, but he could not refuse his friend, so he suffered the noise, the congestion, the people and their questions, with good nature, for the sake of his friend. He drank, and smoked a lot of pot, for survival’s sake. My friend never noticed Pete’s pain, and sense of alienation, being just so happy to have him there. But I noticed. Pete and I spent a lot of time together. He felt more comfortable in my presence, especially when forced into social situations. I never questioned him, and I never judged him. Pete finished the work in a few days and went home, but he and I remained friends.
In May of 1979, he invited me to visit him for a couple of weeks. We had a great time. It was my first trip to Alaska, and I could not have had a better guide. He showed me his world, tutored me in survival in the Alaskan wilderness, and took me up into his tree blind. I never forgot the advice he gave me,”….never come out here without a 44 magnum, these bears ain’t Smokey”….”never wear your hip waders into deep water, you’ll drown,” and “….mosquitos are the Alaskan state bird, so wear netting.” He was a passionate environmentalist, before it was fashionable, and hated all that did harm to the planet, but he cared very little for people.
The day before I left, he talked about the war, his pain and survivor’s guilt. Even though the life he created for himself was peaceful and isolated, life back in the world was very hard for Pete, and he told me that he often thought of just leaving it all behind.
My friend called me, a few months later. He was crying. Pete had been guiding someone and setting up a ‘fish camp’, when there was a flash flood. Without taking off his hip waders, Pete walked into the water, and drowned. I knew that he finally had enough, and decided to end his life. I knew him well enough to understand and respect his choice, but to this day, I still miss him.
By 1985, more than 80,000 Vietnam veterans had committed suicide. It is happening all over again, right now, right here in America. If we, as Americans, want to stop seeing this history repeated, we must do a much better job helping our veteran’s return to the world.