Agent Orange and the transformation of a soldier with disabilities
Vietnam veteran John Fields died on January 15, 2007. Two days later, at his funeral in St. Paul, Rabbi Avrom Ettedgui chanted one of John’s favorite psalms, Psalm 23.
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.”
It seems fitting that John died on the same day we commemorated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. John may not have delivered great speeches and he did not stand before hundreds of thousands of people to give an “I Have A Dream” speech, but John did have a dream. And he did connect with many of us with the same spiritual centeredness Dr. King had. John’s strength was his devotion to God and his family. His children called him their hero. Those of us who were honored to take part in his funeral and burial felt the same way.
“He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort Me.”
John joined the Marines in the 1960s; he served in Vietnam in ’65-‘66. He put his life on the line for his fellow Americans, and when he returned, he deserved better treatment from us than he got. Like many other soldiers who joined the military during the Vietnam war, John went overseas to serve God and country. And it was God that kept him going, in part, as his country let him down.
According to Cheryl Fields, John’s widow, John used to say he “went to Vietnam believing in G-d, country and the American way and came home a year later believing in none of them.” It would take a long time to realize G-d and country may not necessarily be the same thing. John survived the war but it would take him a long time to learn to live at peace with himself and G-d. While he formalized his commitment to Judaism only last year, he has been following Jewish traditions and beliefs for more than 20 years… you see, the last time he joined something, i.e., the Marines, it wasn’t so good. This time he wanted to be sure.
John died of cancer and other complications related to his exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War; and he wrestled with the Veterans Administration about how this agency should accept responsibility to support service personnel whose lives were put at risk from such a deadly chemical like that of Agent Orange. John told me in one of our previous conversations of how he put himself into a back-to-back treatment in 1979, and that he felt worse after the sixty days of treatment rather then better. He wasn’t allowed, during these therapy sessions, to talk about the battlefield experiences that led to his mental and physical disabilities.
His struggle to educate the Veterans Administration about better therapy for disabled veterans—as well as better support through the maze of bureaucratic twists and turns prior to and during his treatment for cancer—seemed to have been met with neglect. As Cheryl bitterly noted, “John isn’t the only veteran who suffered the effects of Agent Orange and the neglect of the VA. If the public really knew how our veterans are treated after they return from war, no one would ever enlist.”
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
John Fields helped start veterans rap groups, Alcoholic Anonymous chapters and speaker’s bureaus. John was, above everything else, a devoted father to his three children and to his wife Cheryl. His son Jesse says, “Even in death, he continues to bring people together,” noting the diversity of people at his father’s funeral , all paying their respects to a Jewish man.
Surely goodness and mercy shall “pursue” me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”
The custom at a Jewish burial is for each of us to take the shovel and spread a shovel full of dirt over the grave as one by one we fill the final place of rest with the good earth. Rabbi Ettedgui told us to pause before we release the soil from the bowl of the shovel as a symbol we wish the deceased was still with us. This process was repeated three times for each person who stepped forward to make a final good-bye. The shovel is then laid down with the bowl turned downward for the next person to go through this ritual of respect.
John, we wish you were still with us. I will miss our debates over the books and verses of the Torah. We had different world views: yours was one of the sighted and mine was one of the blind. You, the carpenter, carved wood as you made old things new from cedar and oak. And I, with my keyboard, made new stories from old lines, as I do now with my memories of you.
John Fields,1945—2007, died far too early at the young age of 61. John was survived by his wife Cheryl, his children Jessie, Sunny and Jennifer and his son-in-law Mike. Our eyes watered and our hearts wept as we heard Larry Long’s songs of tribute woven between Rabbi Ettedgui’s chanting and reading in Hebrew and English.
Shalom and peace to you, my friend.