War Claims Veterans Who Make It Home Safely, Too
A version of this column ran in The Virginian-Pilot Memorial Day, 2012.
I first saw her at my grandmother's funeral.
Tall, plain, dressed in black, she stood by herself at the rear of the cemetery throng.
Someone whispered, "Garry's here," and my dad's head snapped around. He made his way to this older woman who held a small bouquet in her thin hands. They talked quietly and hugged before she wandered over to a lonely headstone on the edge of the family plot where she placed her flowers.
Then she faded away, like a ghost.
My father explained later that she was the widow of his uncle. Her real name was Johanna. Garry was a nickname. She never had children, and as far as I know, never remarried. Yet for years, she would quietly appear at family gatherings, an eerie reminder of a man whose life was brief. My father kept in touch with her until she died in a nursing home in the 1980s.
All that's known of her late husband is contained in one legal-size envelope.
It's on my lap as I write this. Inside is John R. Dougherty's New Jersey driver's license that expired in 1927, his death certificate, a pile of yellowed newspaper clippings, a few personal letters, and his discharge papers from the Army.
My Great-Uncle John, who died at 28, stood 5-foot-6-1/2, and had blue eyes, a light complexion and brown hair. He was one of 11 children. My grandfather was his older brother.
According to his Army discharge papers, Pvt. Dougherty was of "very good" character, "honest and faithful."
I don't know where he served in the war. Verdun, my dad always said, but the line after "Battles, engagements, skirmishes, expeditions" is blank.
He suffered no wounds. John's physical condition as he returned to civilian life is described as "good."
Nowhere does it mention his mental condition.
From the newspaper clippings, I learn many things about this long-dead relative. First, that he enlisted in the Army during his junior year in high school. He trained at Anniston, Ala., and "went overseas as a member of Company G, 113th U.S. Infantry."
I also learn that unlike today, newspapers in the 1920s weren't shy about reporting on suicides. In fact, these grisly incidents were covered in shocking detail.
The front page of Trenton's Sunday Times-Advertiser from July 9, 1927, features a photo of my square-jawed great-uncle in his uniform, under the headline "Shell-Shock Ends Life Ten Years Later" followed by a series of sub-headlines:
"Mail Man Uses Gun at Home" "Wife Returns from Store As Fatal Shot is Fired" "Only a Few Days out of the Hospital."
Seems he'd been suffering from an "extreme nervous condition" and had been sent to a sanitarium to recover. Back home, he appeared stable, so his wife left him alone for mere minutes to dash to a nearby store.
When she returned, she heard the "roar of a shotgun" and found the body of her husband sprawled on the floor. "The top of his head had been blown off and a single-barrel shotgun lay by his side," the paper reported.
A newspaper published an editorial headlined "Another Victim," suggesting that my uncle's fate was not uncommon. In those days, they didn't call his condition post-traumatic stress disorder, but of course it was.
The editorialist wrote that when John Dougherty died, he was "another victim of the world war, just as sure as if his body had been riddled by bullets of the enemy. How many more are there like him in America? How many sudden deaths, suicides, are directly traceable to the horrible experiences 'over there' "?
On this Memorial Day, that's a question still worth pondering as we remember our war dead, including those who died of injuries - both physical and mental - long after hostilities ceased.