By the Rev. Kathryn White
My brother, Johnny, took his life fifty years ago as he was training to serve in the Vietnam War. He was only a few months into Basic Training when the darkness overtook him. I will forever regret that I did not know his pain. I could not help him.
Johnny was always a thoughtful, sensitive person with a good sense of humor. He was two years older than me, and though he often kept to himself, I enjoyed the times when we would talk late into the night during our teenage years. We grew up in a comfortable home but Johnny was always troubled by the knowledge that so many others did not enjoy our comfort. He clearly saw the inequalities in our society between rich and poor or black and white. He wanted to do something to change what he saw as unjust. In the summer of 1964, he joined hundreds of other white college students from the North and traveled to Mississippi to register black men and women to vote. He believed it was important work, though he knew it might be dangerous. While he was there, 3 of his fellow students were brutally killed by Mississippians.
In college Johnny wrote his senior thesis on non-violence and the work of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. He became convinced that resistance to violence was the path to a better world. He sought peace in a time when his country was engaged in the Vietnam War. When he finished his studies, he was confronted with the possibility of being drafted to serve in that very war. He had a low draft number and knew he would be called up eventually. He would have preferred to do two years of community service rather than join the military, but he could not opt out of military service by claiming Conscientious Objector status. In those days, half a century ago, if a person applied for CO status, he had to declare that he believed in a Supreme Being. Johnny had grown up in the church, but had grave questions about faith and knew he could not honestly make such a declaration. He decided he would enlist in the Army and train to serve as a Medic. With that mission in mind, he figured he could still serve but would not have to engage in combat. He did however have to go through Basic Training as would any other new recruit.
For that training, he went off to Fort Campbell in Kentucky in the Fall of 1966. Less than two months later, Basic Training took a break for the Christmas holiday, and Johnny came home to join the rest of the family for a week or so. We were all there to greet him, my mother and father, my two younger sisters and myself. My boyfriend, soon to become my husband, joined us a day or so after Christmas. Johnny did not seem markedly different to me when he was home. He was quiet and didn’t want to talk much about Basic Training, but he had always been reserved, so I didn’t take note. He did tell us he had had to learn how to shoot and handle a rifle. He was being trained for combat, and he hated that part. Most of our conversations during those few days at home were about other ordinary things – our Christmas, our lives, how glad we all were to see him. He did not tell us what was churning up inside of him, and we did not see it. Three days after Christmas, the day before he was to return to training, some time in the night, my brother got into his car and drove off into the dark. Before dawn, my parents were awakened by a call from the police saying his car had been found on a bridge over the Cape Cod Canal. His shoes and his wallet were found inside. He was gone.
We never actually found out what happened that night. Johnny did not leave us a note and his body was never found. Some thought he might have escaped to Canada, which was an exit many war dissenters took in those days. He could have made it look like he had jumped off the bridge but then arranged a ride across the border instead. My family and I believe that he did jump. He knew this bridge and the waters beneath it well. He grew up only half an hour away. He knew that this bridge was a popular destination for those attempting suicide. He was smart enough to know that in December, he would not long survive the cold, icy waters swiftly rushing far below the surface of the bridge. My family was stunned by losing him, but we slowly accepted the fact that he was gone. We held a memorial service for him at our church, and then each of us went on with our lives. None of us really knew how to talk about his suicide or our sadness outside our family or close friends, and so we mostly kept it to ourselves.
Because Johnny’s body was never found, he was listed by the Army as AWOL, labeled a deserter, and this designation deepened the grief I felt for him. Two years after he disappeared, I was getting on with my life -- happily married and living in northern Virginia, teaching elementary school. One day my principal called me out of class, looking quite concerned. He took me to his office where 2 FBI agents were waiting to question me. They asked me if my brother had been in contact with me recently. In my heart I believed that Johnny had taken his own life two years before this, and these strangers were asking me about contact! I learned later that day that they had also gone to my husband’s school and asked him the same thing. All the old sorrow and regret and pain came rushing back all over again that day.
Looking back fifty years, I still miss Johnny and wonder what was going on inside of him that pushed him to take his life. What did he experience during Basic Training and how did he process it all? Why couldn’t he let us know or leave us a note or reach out for help? Why couldn’t I see his wounds that Christmas? Was there anything we could have done for him? I know these are normal questions for those whose loved ones have committed suicide, and I have learned to live with them but they still carry deep sadness for me.
The Rev. Kathryn S. White