NOVEMBER 2, 2017 – With the broadcast of Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, “The Vietnam War” and the publication of books on the Battle for Hue and singer Barry Sadler, Vietnam suddenly reentered the public’s consciousness this year – after many years of being buried deep in America’s collective memory.
The documentary resonated with me because our family has its own Jewish Vietnam story. My father, Gerald Gitell, a Special Forces combat officer in Vietnam, died the night of Veterans Day. Before he died, he recognized that he suffered from what is now referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and on that very last night of his life, he watched an HBO documentary on the affliction narrated by James Gandolfini called “Wartorn.”
Today, awareness and understanding of PTSD informs the public’s view of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — even with the gaps in treatment and service that exist. That support and understanding was absent for much of the 1970s and 1980s, the period during which my father struggled with his wartime demons. He encountered a world with minimal compassion for him, and his unique background probably exacerbated his condition.
My father was a Green Beret, a member of the elite band of soldiers selected by President Kennedy to spearhead the war in Vietnam and other efforts in the proxy wars against Communism in the post-Eisenhower Cold War. To earn his beret, my father had to volunteer three times and undergo a harrowing series of tests and training – through most of which, to my understanding, he thrived. The Special Forces motto, then, as now, is “De Oppresso Liber,” a Latin phrase which means to free the oppressed. He believed it. He lived it.
While at Fort Bragg, which President Kennedy had visited only three years prior to my father’s service there, he met a fellow Green Beret with an interest in music, Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler. Shortly after the two met – while engaging in war games on the fort grounds – Sadler asked my dad, son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants who had a communications degree from Boston University and was serving as the Public Information Officer of the unit, for help with his song, “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” My father arranged for Sadler to record a demo of the song, earning it the status as the official song of Special Forces. He then sent copies of the tape and a pitch letter out to record companies.
Ultimately, one of these pitch letters drew the interest of Music, Music, Music, which gave Sadler a publishing contract for the song, and the artist designated 25 percent of these fees to my dad. He wasn’t aware of this stroke of luck when it happened. He was a lone American leading CIDG local forces in the canal region of South Vietnam.
Soon after his return home from Vietnam, thanks in part to an appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Ballad” was the number one song in the nation, a position it held for five weeks. Sadler’s standing that year was equaled only by the Beatles. Sadler’s story – including my father’s part in it – is told by author Marc Leepson in “The Ballad of the Green Beret” released this year.
That success came before I was born. For financial reasons, we lived in a summer house my grandparents owned near Nantasket Beach in Hull. On weekends, our whole extended family — except for him — decamped to the beach. He’d stay inside quietly sipping scotch and watching war or cowboy movies — Sadler’s face on an album propped on a shelf loomed over the scene. The juxtaposition was raw.
My father’s frequent bouts of unemployment, chronic drinking and personal quirks elicited a straightforward reaction from my mother. She struggled to understand how he could have such a hard time coping? Ultimately, she decided life as a single-parent, working as a medical secretary, would be a more secure option — despite how unusual this was in her mid-70s middle class Jewish milieu.
For most of my childhood, my father was a continuous presence. I visited him on weekends and for a month during the summer. During these visits I learned not to approach him at night. I remember waking up one night to the roar of the air conditioner. I walked over to his bed for a hug. I made it to within around five feet of him. He uttered a loud war cry and was on his feet within seconds with his hands poised to strike. His only explanation for this was that I woke him up. I went back to bed with my heart pounding.
Instead of an after-camp program, a camp counselor deposited me at Travel Time, his Peabody travel agency on Route 1. The building housed the travel agency, a massage parlor, and a tavern named after Las Vegas’s Caesar’s Palace. I’d often find him in this cavernous, frigid, pitch-black bar with leather-backed booths and stools, sipping J & B on the rocks.
Ultimately his travel agency, powered by unique and ahead-of-their-time money-making schemes and sometimes questionable gambling junkets to Las Vegas, failed. He had one last scheme in him. He devised a trade show aimed at newly affluent young professionals, “The Leisure Time Show,” and put it on in Boston’s Hynes Auditorium. Despite publicity, the show barely broke even. Meanwhile, his former colleagues at another travel agency, Sheldon Adelson, (yes, that Sheldon Adelson), and Irwin Chafetz, got into a similar business and thrived. This only compounded his suffering.
For a time, he went MIA. Where once he had told me about the Jewish ritual practice of the bar mitzvah, he was largely absent as I studied for mine. My mother toiled with all the financial and logistical preparations. Ultimately, he snuck into the synagogue and heard me daven. But he quietly absented himself from the party.
After a few months, he seemed to rally somewhat. He stopped drinking cold turkey. We were seeing him again. Eventually, he confessed that he was driving a cab, but insisted he wasn’t going to do it for the rest of his life.
We still visited him frequently — with movies a centerpiece. At age 10, I accompanied him to “Apocalypse Now.” Despite his excitement at seeing a Vietnam film from the director of “The Godfather,” the bizarre imagery and Brando’s acting jarred him. He walked out. Three years later, he took my sister, then age 11, and me to another movie whose lead character was a Green Beret, called “First Blood.” Stallone’s fierce, bloodthirsty Rambo served as the public’s model of PTSD during the 1980s. By 1982, people were starting to understand that the war had damaged some of its soldiers. Yet that model didn’t fit tortured, bespectacled, cerebral Jerry Gitell.
As his problem drinking subsided, other problems such as insomnia, anxiety and self-loathing intensified. He had two bedrooms in his grimy Cambridge apartment but he slept on an old couch with his back to the wall. He kept his loaded service revolver in the closet and an eye on both doors.
Walking home from class at Harvard with classmates, I’d often bump into him at Elsie’s Lunch, grabbing a brisket sandwich between fares. “That’s my dad,” I’d say to my friends, who looked on with shock. I was with him after news had broken that Sadler had been shot in Central America. For the first and last time in a very long time, he had been drinking. I found him in the dark. He told me I didn’t understand. He named the names of men I had never heard before, friends killed in Vietnam. “I should have died,” he said. I walked out to roam the streets of Harvard Square.
A decade of suffering followed for him. Shortly before 9/11, he left Boston for Las Vegas. There his sister’s husband, a union man named Chuck Hawk, convinced him to visit a Vet Center. There he started to talk and listen. The therapists there focused on a “veterans group talk.” As my dad went each week to talk to his group, the Veterans Administration certified him as having “PTSD.” This came with a small stipend that enabled him to survive.
In the meantime, an old sergeant major spotted my dad wearing a hat with the Special Forces insignia in a bagel shop. He invited him to attend a meeting of the local chapter of the Special Forces Association. My dad attended and was astounded to learn that they sang “The Ballad of the Green Berets” at each meeting. He had finally found a home.
Less than a week after he died unexpectedly, we gathered at the Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City Nevada. A green beret was placed in front of his pine coffin along with a pair of paratroop boots. At the end of the ceremony, his Green Beret colleagues, his friends from his veterans group and family, sang familiar words: “Put silver wings on my son’s chest; Make him one of America’s best; He’ll be a man they’ll test one day; Have him win the Green Beret.”
Seth Gitell lives outside of Boston with his wife and two sons. A previous version of this ran in the Huffington Post.