A Vietnam Veteran’s Life in Three Acts

“Not everyone who lost his life in Vietnam died there.” So begins Paul Ebeltoft’s obituary to his brother, William “Bill” Ebeltoft. Bill, a Vietnam veteran, lived three lives, one “before, during and after Vietnam,” writes Paul.

Bill passed away at the age of 73 on December 15, at the Veteran’s Home in Columbia Falls, Montana.

The obituary weaves a tale of familial love – remembering a handsome man with a ready smile – but heartbreak is at its core. Volunteering for the Army at age 21, Bill became a helicopter pilot and deployed to Vietnam in 1969, logging thousands of flight hours. Here began his second life.

Seldom speaking of the horrors of which he survived, Bill’s family only learned of his valor through his numerous medal citations. One, from February 3, 1969 reads:

While acting as aircraft commander of a UH-1H helicopter, WO Ebeltoft distinguished himself when his ship came under heavy automatic weapons while on a resupply mission for Company B, 1 Battalion, 52 Infantry. While attempting to resupply B Company, WO Ebeltoft’s co-pilot became wounded. Realizing the importance of the mission WO Ebeltoft elected to attempt completion of the mission. Due to his superior knowledge of the aircraft, the helicopter was kept under control during the period in which the pilot was wounded and the ship was under fire. Remaining under attack from automatic weapons fire, the supply mission was successfully completed. While unloading the supplies, WO Ebeltoft received word that there were five emergency medical evacuation cases located 200 meters to his rear. WO Ebeltoft re-positioned his helicopter and picked up the wounded personnel. While evacuating the wounded, the commanding officer of Company B was injured. WO Ebeltoft again maneuvered his aircraft to enable evacuation of the injured officer. WO Ebeltoft then proceeded to evacuate all injured personnel by the fastest possible means. Upon completion, examination of the aircraft revealed that the craft had sustained nine enemy .30 caliber hits.

Bill left the Army in 1971, but re-entry into society was, as Paul describes it, rough.

His third life began here, one marked by a slow descent into darkness as he grappled with his demons. Soon his mental faculties would fail him. Finding it unnecessary to “recount Bill’s portion of what is an all-too-common story for wartime veterans, particularly those of the Vietnam era,” Paul notes that his brother and his brothers-in-arms in Vietnam were “battered hard and unfairly by the cruel winds of the times in which they fought.”

In a 2014 study, the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health found that “Additional analyses indicated that Vietnam War veterans were more than twice as likely as World War II or Korean War veterans to have elevated depression symptoms.”

The VA estimates that 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime. Bill was among them. Speaking with Stars and Stripes, Paul recounts that his brother was “a damaged man, but the war in Vietnam pulled the trigger that caused the wound. There is no other way to say it than that.”

After the war Bill retreated into his mind and around 1984 he began suffering from psychotic breaks. He became a resident at the veteran’s home and fell into what can be described mentally as happy confusion, with occasional slippages into reality. The Vietnam vet was stuck in the year of 1969.

Since Bill’s obituary was published, Paul’s words have resonated widely, with people from all over the country reaching out and sharing similar difficulties. Paul himself has been blown away by the response, telling Stars and Stripes that he had simply hoped to capture the full measure of his brother’s life.

The obituary itself is a testament of brotherly love, with Paul noting at the end, “Bill was always a proud man, remembering himself as he was in 1969, not as he became. Who are we to suggest differently?”

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