Casualty Of War: A Short Biography Of My Uncle Jerry

November 12, 2012


My uncle Jerry was the third of four sons to his parents, my dad being the fourth.  He had a sunny disposition and a way with words that enabled him to defuse situations that led to violence in most childhoods of his generation.  He loved to tell long, involved stories about his experiences punctuated with his laughter at his own foibles.  These only grew longer and more colorful when he reached adolescence.

It became clear early in his teens that he was a natural athlete in football, basketball and baseball.  By his sophomore year, he was playing varsity in all three sports, in addition to being elected vice-president of the student body.  His junior year Jerry made five out of seven point-after-touchdown kicks in the final game when the football team won the state championship.

In addition to playing well, he made it look easy.  On graduating, he was offered a football scholarship to a junior college in Vancouver, Washington.  He went and played well, but left college at the end of the season.  Nevertheless, he was offered another scholarship the following year and played another season.

By this time, the Korean War was heating up and Jerry and his best friend were drafted into a National Guard infantry unit and sent to Camp Cook for basic training.  Because Jerry was six feet two and a well-conditioned athlete, he was designated a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) man.  Since the weapon was so effective, the man who carried it into battle was a prime target for enemy fire.  The life span of a BAR man in battle was said to be measured in minutes.  Still, Jerry survived.  He wrote to his younger brother from the trenches of frozen Korea describing the horrible conditions in which he was living and imploring the younger man to get into any other branch of the service than Infantry.  After most of a year on the front lines, Jerry developed an infection in his heel and was sent to the rear for treatment.  While there, he was chosen for the honor guard of General James Van Fleet, and soon rose to the rank of platoon sergeant.  It was from that duty he was discharged from the military.

He was quite different when he returned to civilian life.  He drank heavily, drove fast and started many programs authorized by the G.I. Bill, but finished none of them – including pilot training even though he had successfully flown his final solo.  He married quickly, fathered a girl and went through a divorce just as quickly.  He married a second time and fathered two daughters before leaving that relationship as well.

From that point on as Jerry drank more and more heavily, went from job to job, relationship to relationship.  Before very long, he was homeless on the streets of Seattle, his body very slowly giving out from alcoholism.  One year, after an alcoholism-related surgery, he talked about his experiences on the street, about being mugged, and about trying to protect himself – all couched in stories with humor, still punctuated by his own foibles.  As he walked us back our car, he discovered a piece of trash in his pocket.  With total grace and barely a look or thought, he threw it in a perfect hook shot to a trash can ten feet away.

One night, he left his campfire to relieve himself and was followed by someone who tried to murder him.  He lay on the sidewalk for six hours, being passed by countless people on their way to work, before anyone sought help.  He suffered brain damage and was institutionalized for the rest of his short life.  When my father went to visit him after the attack, Jerry was sitting up in his bed.  “What are you doing here?” he smiled brightly.  My dad began to explain that the hospital had notified him about what had happened, then gradually realized as they talked that Jerry was wondering what he was doing in Korea, where Jerry thought he was on patrol.

When Jerry returned from the war, he often drifted into a fugue state in the middle of a conversation.  When asked about it, he would brush the question aside with a joke.  Once, when he had drunk plenty, he told the story of getting separated from his patrol on a snowy night in Korea.  There were Chinese soldiers surrounding the Allied position and Jerry had no idea which way to go.  His description of the terror he experienced was vivid.  On another evening, he told of the disrespect for life that developed among the troops.  When a Chinese soldier on a slope just across the valley kept digging his foxhole long enough to annoy Jerry and his comrades, they called in artillery fire on the man just to quiet him.  He would only on occasion make reference to the fire-fights in which people were getting killed all around him and he had no idea why he survived.

He died of pancreatic cancer at 58.  But in a lot of ways he never stopped fighting the war.  Jerry was a kind and funny soul who spent the rest of his life trying to recover from how he was affected.  War changes everyone.  War wounds anyone who touches it.  And not everyone who is dies in war is killed on the battlefield.

*As related to me by my dad, with minor edits*

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About The Byronic Man

Recently voted "The Best Humor Site in America That I, Personally, Write," The Byronic Man is sometimes fiction, but sometimes autobiography. And sometimes cultural criticism. Oh, and occasionally reviews. Okay, it's all those different things, but always humorous. Except on the occasions that it's not. Ah, geez. Look, it's a lot of things, okay? You might like it, is the point.

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24 Comments on “Casualty Of War: A Short Biography Of My Uncle Jerry”

  1. Alt-Shift-Enter Says:

    A touching story. Very sad, but there is a lesson in there for us all.


  2. Life With The Top Down Says:

    My favorite line: “War changes everyone. War wounds anyone who touches it. And not everyone who is dies in war is killed on the battlefield.”


    • Andrea Kelly Says:

      That was mine as well! A moving story, thank you for sharing it.


      • Deborah the Closet Monster Says:

        Thirded. I was thinking about this as I drove to work on freeways for once free of traffic. The veterans I know who’ve served in war never seemed to have fully left it, so that when I read this ending with these thoughts still in the forefront of my mind, waterworks commenced.

        Thank you for sharing your uncle’s story.


  3. Tori Nelson Says:

    That last line was a POWERFUL way to sum this up. Thanks for letting us get to know Jerry a little bit, to see how war can change a life.


  4. Abe Says:

    Great story, I too have an uncle that served in Korea. Sadly I don’t know any if his stories since he simply won’t share them with anyone. I can only imagine.


  5. Lynn Schneider Says:

    Very timely post, and a good (but sad) story of your Uncle. Some are able to put it behind them as my father did his horrific WWII experience, yet others are affected by it until the end of their days. I agree with the comment that your last line was a powerful ending to this moving post.


  6. angrymiddleagewoman Says:

    Wow. Rest in Peace Jerry, and thank you so very, very much.


  7. She's a Maineiac Says:

    Thank you and your dad for sharing his life with us. These are the things we need to hear about the brutal realities of war and the incredibly difficult struggles a man like your uncle faces in daily life long after the war is over. It makes my heart ache.


  8. becomingcliche Says:

    Beautiful tribute. The price of freedom is much higher than most of us will ever know.


  9. susielindau Says:

    This was such a sad story and probably reflects the lives of so many who have been in the military.
    His decline must have been hard for your dad to witness…
    Excellent piece!


  10. earthriderjudyberman Says:

    Your story – especially the last few lines – really touched my heart. In middle school (7th or 8th grade), I came to the conclusion that “young men were sent to war to fight for old men’s vanities.” I think those who are so eager to wage it should be made to serve active combat.
    War claims its victims in many ways. I’m sorry to hear how it affected your Uncle Jerry’s life.


  11. Michelle Gillies Says:

    Well, Byronic Man, I have listened to many stories about those frozen trenches in Korea. My Dad was there. Sometimes I think the survivors, those that come back, are the ones who suffer the most.
    Here is something you may not know about the Korean War. It has the highest rate of cancer related deaths with regard to its veterans. I can’t speak to what happens in the US but, in dealing with veteran’s affairs just before my Dad’s death we found this fact out accidentally. It turns out that Korean Vets with cancer actually had a lot more benefits coming to them because of this however, they don’t tell you about it. If you ask about it they then give you the proper forms and you can apply for it and all the “back benefits”. I often wonder how many of these damaged people suffer more than they have to because of this policy of “don’t tell them unless they ask about it”. I hope that your Uncle was treated more honestly by your government.


  12. Go Jules Go Says:

    I feel very honored that you (and your dad) shared this story with us. Your uncle sounds like he was an incredible man.

    I’m glad you made that last point. It makes me think about how a lot of people think they know not only who they are, but who they’d be in certain moments, and are so sure, that they can just walk by someone left for dead on a Seattle sidewalk. Without a second thought. Because that could never be them. Or their uncle.


  13. Don't Quote Lily Says:

    Such a sad story but I’m so glad you shared, as there is a great message here for everyone. Those last lines were so moving, and 100% true.
    May Uncle Jerry rest in peace.


  14. renée a. schuls-jacobson Says:

    Byro: I have a similar story with my Uncle Paulie. Devastating. But he lived a long life — sometimes we wish it hadn’t been so long. He was ruined by Vietnam. Ruined. We have to remember how war forces us to unlearn all the things we are taught as children: be ruthless, be vicious, don’t share, trust no one, the enemy is everywhere, don’t thing; just follow orders. Is it any wonder these people come home changed? Great post.


  15. pegoleg Says:

    Wonderful story – thank you so much for sharing. Thanks also to your uncle Jerry, who answered his nation’s call and paid the ultimate sacrifice, even if it was years later. God bless all veterans today and every day.


  16. Jackie Cangro Says:

    It’s shameful that they called it a “police action” for years.

    Good point that not all battle scars are visible. I’ve worked with therapy dogs who assist able-bodied veterans to work through PTSD. It can be heartbreaking to watch the soldiers go through this private hell.

    Wonderful post.


  17. Elyse Says:

    We ask too much of soldiers and then give too little back. It is a disgrace. Cooper of Security of Cadavers has a post where he says that he’d support legislation that

    1) only the people who will actually fight the war deciding whether to go to war or not.


    2) The members of the house and senate who vote to involve the US in conflict on foreign soil will send their children, grandchildren, themselves as the first line of attack. ( I agree!


  18. Leanne Shirtliffe (Ironic Mom) Says:

    The wife of a soldier suffering from PTSD after 4 tours in Afghanistan sent me an email telling me my blog was part of his recovery. Driving to and from treatments many times per week, he’d read it to his wife aloud and they’d laugh. I will never forget that.

    Tonight, my husband was just telling me of his grandfather who served in WW2 and how he came back a changed man who could not hold a job or show love to his son. PTSD, before it had a name.

    You wrote poignantly about your uncle. Thank you for sharing.


  19. Love and Lunchmeat Says:

    This is a great story. I’m surprised you knew this much. So many soldiers never even talk about any of their experiences; I spent the first sixteen years of my life trying to get my grandfather to tell me stories, and he only told me one story ever.

    Ditto for a friend. I think it’s based on the idea that no civilian will ever quite understand what it means.


  20. Sandy Sue Says:

    Thank goodness we’re finally recognizing PTSD and the enormous effect on survivors. Service men and women I know are all very tight-lipped about their experiences–and all suffering.


  21. Audrey Says:

    So poignant and heart-rending. Thanks for sharing this. With both of my brothers in the Army and one serving his second tour of Afghanistan, my family is already witnessing how war hurts each soldier. Jerry sounds like a good man who will be missed and remembered.


  22. Shannon Says:

    Thank you for sharing your uncle’s story, so poignant and beautifully written. May he rest in eternal peace and his personal torment not forgotten.


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