The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

August/September 2004
FEATURE ARTICLE
 
 

The Ongoing Cost Of War

BY KAREN ZACHARIAS

A statue of a magnificent woman towers over Danang's main thoroughfare in Vietnam. With one hand she embraces a knapsack of household treasures; the other palm is outstretched, reaching for something unseen. Anguish creases her brow. Hero Mother, as she is known, is a national tribute to the untold number of women who lost their husbands, their brothers, and their sons to war in Vietnam. No such tribute exists in this nation for millions of grieving American mothers, wives, and sisters.

Lorri Spada, 54, is one such woman. She was 18 when she married Tony Conti. The two Pittsburgh kids had been classmates since elementary school. 

Their first date was in 1966 at a school picnic in an amusement park. But it was while she was out of town on another school trip that Lorri learned how much Tony really cared about her. He sent her a six-page letter, filled with his innermost longings.

"Up until that point, I didn't realize he liked me so much," Lorri said. "It was very flattering. And the guy could really write. Most of the guys I knew could hardly ask you to dance, much less write a letter telling a girl how much they liked her."

That fall, while Lorri was completing her senior year, Tony attended the local community college. He soon grew bored. So, after one year of college, Tony dropped out and enlisted in the Army. At that time, neither he nor Lorri knew anything about Vietnam.

Lorri earned a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh and left for school in September. Tony left for basic training on his birthday, October 10, 1967. The two didn't see each other again until Christmas. Then, Lorri learned she was pregnant and Tony received his orders for Vietnam. The two married on February 24, 1968, in the Catholic church their families had attended for years.

"It was a small ceremony but a happy day," Lorri said. "We had a big love."

Because of the pregnancy, the couple tried to have his orders changed. But Tony left for Vietnam in May. He had a premonition that he would not return home alive.

"He said he had a feeling he would die before he turned 21," Lorri recalled.

She didn't know how to reassure her husband or how to quiet her own fears. So she said nothing and hoped for the best.

"I believed he would come home. I thought all along he'd come back okay," she said.

On July 15, 1968, while serving with the 4th Infantry Division, Tony Conti drove over a land mine in the Central Highlands. He was posthumously promoted to corporal.

"Tony was the FNG. He'd only been in country six weeks," Lorri said.

Lorri was living at home, helping care for her four younger siblings the day military officials showed up with the news of Tony's death. He was 19.

On Sept. 30, 1968, Lorri gave birth to a girl.

Losing a husband at such a young age made things especially difficult. "I wasn't accepted into any social set," Lorri said. "I wasn't military, but I wasn't civilian either. I didn't fit in with the college girls. Even though I was their age, I was a widowed mother. I wasn't one of the single girls. I didn't belong anywhere."

Additionally, she felt a great deal of rage.

"It was such mix of emotions. I couldn't be an antiwar activist because I felt that would be a betrayal to Tony and the other soldiers. I felt embarrassed that I didn't have the courage to take a stand. I felt so impotent."

But the absolute hardest part of being a widow was raising her daughter without a father. "Her loss started before she was born," Lorri said. "It was difficult raising her all alone. There was never a time in my life where I felt I could get sick or take too many risks. I had no one to fall back on to care for her if something happened to me."

She turned to her parents for help. And Tony's family treated her as one of their own. That was important, Lorri said, because it gave her daughter a connection with her father she would otherwise have lacked.

"There are so many men in Tony's family who look just like him. My daughter can look at these men and, through them, see a reflection of her dad."

In 2003, Lorri joined Sons and Daughters in Touch on their journey to Vietnam to the battlefields where their fathers died. "I was elated to have something 'material' of him back: dirt on the road, grass in the clearing, lovely pine trees or their descendants among which we conducted the memorial ceremony. I imagined we both looked at the same sky, there above the Central Highlands, breathed the same air, saw the same villagers," Lorri said.

But, she still couldn't shake a sense of regret. "I was ashamed that I didn't have a tear for him. I only had forgiveness and a sense of ease and peace. Forgiveness for leaving me alone and pregnant 35 years earlier."

That forgiveness, though, has enabled her to build a better relationship over the past year with Tony's family and with her own daughter. "I have more freedom to talk about Tony," Lorri said.

Lorri Spada hopes that one day she'll hear from the other men who were with Corp. Tony Conti on the day he died on a red dirt road just outside the town of Plei Bon, including Lt. Jones. Sgt. Kitrell, SP4 Houghton, and SP6 Moore.

"Welcome home" are the two words Estella Shockley longed to tell her own husband, but 31 days before his homecoming, Bobby Joe Shockley, 19, was struck by sniper fire in a village at Binh Duong. Shockley was serving with C Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, the First Infantry Division's "Blue Spaders."

Estella and Bobby Shockley fell in at a dance at the local YMCA in St. Louis.

"I was tall and gangly and never had a boyfriend before, but I could dance, and so could Bobby Joe," she said. He was 6'2", so we were a perfect fit. We danced real well together."

The high schools they attended were vocational schools. Estella trained to be a secretary; Bobby Joe, a welder. In 1964, she found a job right out of high school with the city of St. Louis, but he was having trouble. As a black man, he was not welcomed into the welder's union. Because he couldn't get into the union, Bobby Shockley was forced to work as a laborer for lower wages. When Bobby learned that Estella was pregnant with their child, he joined the Army to provide a more financially secure environment for their growing family.

Their son, Kelly, was born in March 1965.

"Going into the Army was Bobby's way of taking care of me and Kelly," Estella explained. Bobby shipped out for Vietnam on October 25, 1965. He was killed on August 13, 1966. Estella still weeps when she talks of the day she received the news of her husband's death.

"I will never forget it. Kelly and I were living in a two-family flat with Bobby's folks. We'd gone to church that day and then taken a nap. Kelly had just woken up from his nap. I'd carried a plate of beets out onto the front porch to feed him. It was a hot day. I saw Bobby's aunt drive up with a soldier. I couldn't figure out why Mary Lou would be with a soldier."

When she saw the stricken look on Mary Lou's face, she knew. "Before that soldier said a word I yelled at him. 'Shut Up! Don't say anything!' Then I went and woke up my in-laws so we could all hear the news together. It's amazing how it affects you even all these years later. That hurt will always be there, no matter what. So I just cry and go on."

Watching her son grow up fatherless continues to haunt her. Kelly will soon celebrate his 39th birthday--one more reminder how much of life Bobby Joe Shockley has missed. 

She credits her mother-in-law, whom she still refers to as Mrs. Shockley, as being a source of great comfort.

"My own mother told me 'Get over it. He's dead.' My friends told me the same thing," Estella said. "Mrs. Shockley never did."

"I don't know what I would've done all these years without her."

When Kelly turned 12, a school counselor recommended she get help.

"The first therapist I saw told me that Vietnam was ancient history and I needed to put it behind me. People don't understand how the loss just goes on and on."

It's only been recently that Estella has found others who understand her loss.

"Thanks to Patty Lee at Sons and Daughters in Touch, I was finally able to hook up with one of the men who was there the day Bobby Joe died. I will be forever grateful to SDIT for that," she said. That man was Ralph Jones of Idaho. The two still keep in contact.

She also credits the Gold Star Mothers and Gold Star Wives for the work they do on behalf of those bereaved by the Vietnam War. "When I first attended a Gold Star Wives event, I was a tall woman with a big Afro. I didn't fit in, but now we are all just a bunch of old broads. We are all the same," Estella Shockley said.

Linnie Blankenbecler isn't sure just yet where she fits in. She is struggling with the death of her husband, Command Sgt. Maj. James Blankenbecler, who was killed October 1, 2003, when his convoy was attacked in Samara, Iraq. SMAJ Blankenbecler was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 44th Air Defense Artillery at Fort Hood, Texas, in mid-August after graduating in May from the nine-month Command  Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss. At the time of his death, Blankenbecler, 40, was the highest ranking enlisted man killed in Iraq. He left behind two step-children, Amanda and Joseph, and a daughter, Jessie, 14. As a military wife, Linnie knew her husband would face heavy combat in Iraq. "But whenever I told Jim how scared I was, he would say, 'Baby, don't be scared, be proud.'

"Before he left, Jim had a really disturbing dream. He said he couldn't remember it. He only remembered pleading with God not to take him away from his family," Linnie said.

SMAJ Blankenbecler had told his wife that if anything happened to him, she and the kids would be well-cared for by the military, but she is finding a harsh reality.

"Jessie and I will only receive medical and dental care for the next three years. After that we have to start paying for it. Jessie will only be 17," she said.

As his widow, she will draw only 55 percent of her husband's retirement.

"I don't think that's fair," she said.

"Used to be whenever I saw a Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair, I felt a lot of compassion," Linnie Blankenbecler said. But now I really understand the sacrifice the soldiers who have served in other wars made, and the sacrifices their families made. I really know what it means when veterans say freedom isn't free."

Karen Spears Zacharias is the author of the forthcoming book, Hero Mama,(Morrow). She can be reached at www.heromama.org

   

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