Did I properly honor his sacrifice?

By Arne Vainio, M.D.
News From Indian Country May 2011

“Jimmy died yesterday.”

“Yeah. A detective called me yesterday. He was looking for Jimmy’s ex-wife. He must have had my phone number in his pocket or something.” I sat in stunned silence after talking with my brother.

I don’t really even remember when Jimmy moved in with us. I was probably about 6 years old and one day he was just there. He was about 15 or 16 when he first moved in and had lived with his aunt prior to that. They didn’t get along for whatever reason and my mom just took him in rather than see him homeless.

He didn’t always make the best decisions. He ALWAYS left the door open. In the winter he let all the heat out and in the summer he let all the mosquitoes in. After my father’s suicide, my mother remarried. In going through old papers several years ago, I found out my alcoholic stepfather made $53.00 a week as a lumberjack. This was with seven kids in the house, plus Jimmy. The house we lived in was set in the middle of a swamp and we had no electricity. The swamp part meant Jimmy let LOTS of mosquitoes into the house.

He would get up early on weekends and make pancakes. He would cook one pancake, then sit at the table and eat it while the pan sat smoking on the stove. When he was done eating the first pancake, he would cook another one and let the pan smoke away on the stove. By the time he was done eating, the whole house was full of smoke.

In the spring he tracked mud through the entire house and no amount of yelling at him would ever make him take his boots off. We didn’t have running water and we had to climb down into the well in the winter. Instead of hauling buckets of water, he would try to haul a 10 gallon cream can so he wouldn’t have to make as many trips. More than once he couldn’t lift it over the doorsill and dumped the entire 10 gallons, leaving a sheet of ice on the cold kitchen floor.

We had kerosene lamps and he showed us how to explode the glass globe by flicking water at it. We caught the table on fire once doing this and were just barely able to put it out. He showed us how to burn anthills and burned up the neighbor’s field. The fire department had to fight hard to stop the fire from reaching the saw mill across the swamp.

But he was generous. He worked in the woods cutting spruce and he bought us mallard duck chicks. Eventually only mine lived. For us, it wasn’t officially spring until that duck came flying back into the swamp by the house.

He bought me a brand new black Schwinn Typhoon and it cost him $43.00. He bought my older sister a bright blue Schwinn Hollywood at the same time. I had never had anything new in my life before that. I treasured that bike and rode it for years.

We couldn’t afford actual sleds and instead had an old car hood with telephone wire to pull it. Jimmy pulled me and my sister all the way across the field to a low hill. The hood was so old and heavy it didn’t slide well and sliding was a huge disappointment. We got back on the hood and he pulled us all the way back home. He kept falling through the wet and heavy snow and the hood would stop between every step he took. He was panting hard and wheezing. I felt sorry for him and asked, “How’s it going, Jimmy?”


But he kept pulling and brought us all the way back home.

I’m not sure if he enlisted or was drafted, but he went to Vietnam. He used his wages and got me into a record club and chose the records for me from Vietnam, somehow. I never really knew what was going to show up, but much of what I listen to is from those records.

He sent me a green satin jacket with a map of Vietnam embroidered in red on it. I wore it proudly to school and wore it until it was full of holes. He sent me binoculars and a hunting knife from Vietnam.
And he sent letters. He was a door gunner in a helicopter and was basically a flying target. His letters became darker and angrier and I didn’t know how to take many of them. He was spit on by protesters when he came back from Vietnam.

When he got back, he landed in San Francisco and stayed there. He was the editor of an underground antigovernment newspaper and used to send copies to me. I was in high school and didn’t understand any of them.

He became a welder and worked long hours. He was proud of his welding skills and worked on big projects. He got married and had 2 sons.

I mostly lost contact with him and heard he eventually divorced.  He called me one day from a VA hospital in California. He had broken his back in a fall at work and was in the hospital for months. When he was finally discharged, he was unable to work anymore. He eventually lost his house and I heard he was living in a homeless shelter.

He was crossing the street when he was hit by a car and died.

I’ve been thinking about him constantly. He was like a brother and an uncle to me. I teased him relentlessly at times when he was living with us. He went to Vietnam to fight for his country and his country didn’t properly honor his sacrifice.

It isn’t soldiers who start wars. Very few willingly go into battle. How does it change a person to be sitting in an open door with bullets ripping through the side of the helicopter? That was in one of his darker letters to me.

Did I properly honor his sacrifice? I don’t think so. He lived a hard life and his last years were not the years that should be accorded to a warrior.

Can any of us properly honor the sacrifices of our soldiers and veterans?

Veteran’s Day should be more than just a day off work in November. I missed my chance to say to Jimmy what we should be saying to all of our warriors every single day.

Miigwech, Ogichidaa. Thank you, warriors. You sacrificed yourselves to protect us. You didn’t choose this path, but you walked it honorably. The rest of us can never know what you’ve suffered. 

Welcome home.

Arne Vainio, MD is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..