The War in Vietnam, An Aching Sadness, and a Cowboy Hat

Veterans Day is in November. I have decided to dedicate this November, and all the Novembers I have left, to honoring the memory of my brother Bill.  William Paul Lang.  I am doing this because I am still pissed off at how a country can use the idealism of young men, and their wish to be noble and heroic, to seduce them to take on a fight based on lies, then use them up, and throw them away. It may seem like a silly gesture, but in November I will honor Bill by trading my Fire Department ball cap, for a black, Stetson cowboy hat Rebecka bought me as an anniversary gift when we lived in Harlingen, Texas when I was starting ProBAR in 1989.  I wore it to court with a western style suit and a shirt with pearl snap buttons. One day I wore a new tie with cows on it.

Immigration Judge Alan Vomacka called me up to the bench when the hearing was over. “I’m am happy to see that tie, Bob, I would hate for you to be just another one of those cowboys that is all hat and no cattle.”

This is what wearing that hat will mean to me in November.

Bill was born in 1946, I came along in 1949.  True Baby Boomers, my parents waited to have children until they were sure Dad would survive World War II on a submarine in the Pacific. Sis (AKA Elizabeth) was three years younger than me, and Brad 8 years younger, he was what was known as a Vatican surprise.

Easter, 1961

Bill and I were never friends growing up.  He tolerated me. Barely.  As an example, even as a teenager Bill was what they call in the military, STRAC. (STRAC is Army slang term for a well-organized, well turned-out soldier, pressed uniform, polished brass and shined boots.  A proud, competent trooper who can be depended on for good performance in any circumstance.) 

Bill’s senior picture, Chula Vista High School, Class of 1964

In high school he dressed fastidiously, made his bed every morning, had all his belongs organized, his socks and shorts folded, neat.  I was messy.  We shared a bedroom so you can imagine what a constant irritant I was to him.  Year after year we shared that small room, and never exchanged a word.  Which is not to say we did not communicate. I recall one day coming out of the bedroom as a middle schooler, probably with a goofy smile on my face, and as I walked down the hallway he stepped out of the bathroom and blocked my way.  He held up a tube of toothpaste in one hand, and in the other hand was the cap I had not replaced. Then he punched me in the stomach.  Message received. To this day I put the cap on the toothpaste.

He was always tougher than me, he drove my Mom crazy, sometime after midnight Saturday morning he would jam his going-out-on-Friday-night shirt deep in the hamper and Mom would find it on Monday, wash day, buttons ripped off, maybe some blood on it, another trophy of Friday night drive-in fights as he stood up for some ideal or other.

He was drafted into the US Army in 1968, spent 13 months in Vietnam and came home shattered. 

Polaroid of Bill leaving home to catch the flight to Vietnam In Country

Ground pounder boots, inspection boots Republic of Vietnam Campaign Ribbon

When he got home and was obviously struggling we tried to get him help, but PTSD was unknown back then, he could never settle down in San Diego and eventually ended up living in rural Idaho, his only friends were other burned out Vietnam vets who called him Will.  When everyone else dressed up, they wore their every day clothes to Wild West Days. Will is in front, pistol, beer can, cigarette.

Another Will story that was a portent of where this drama is heading.

I happened to be in San Diego between adventures when we got a call from a jail in Idaho.  Bill had been arrested for armed robbery.  One his friends called me and gave me play-by-play.  Bill had walked into a convenience store, greeted the cashier, grabbed a six pack of beer and a sandwich.  Went up to the counter, pulled a pistol, said it was a robbery.  Opened a beer, took a swallow, and started unwrapping the sandwich.  “Call 911” Bill said.  The police arrived, guns drawn, Bill was sitting on the counter, beer in one hand, pistol in the other, and he aimed the pistol at the police officer, and the cashier said, “Don’t shoot him, Ted, it’s just Will and you know these vets, he wants you to shoot him.”  The police officer walked over to him, took away the pistol, nodded at the six pack, Will nodded back, then the officer, the cashier, and Will finished off the six pack before they took him to jail.

I called around San Diego and found a criminal lawyer, a vet, who handled these types of cases.  In his office he gave me some background.  “Suicide by cop, that’s what we call it.  Vietnam vets, feeling guilty about the people they killed, they believe they deserve to die by firing squad, so they follow this exact pattern, pull a gun on a cop, take a few round in the chest and believe they got what they deserved.  I get two or three calls a week. Let me call up to Idaho and see what I can do.”

Will ended up pleading guilty to menacing with a firearm, got two years and was sent to an honor camp.  The camp was a working ranch way up in the mountains which suited Will just fine. He got up every morning, made his bed and squared away his area, then saddled up a horse, strapped on a pistol for any varmints he might encounter, then spent the day ‘riding fence.’ He would ride along a fence line and when he found a post down, or wire sagging, he got off his horse, fixed the fence, then moved on.

Credit: Pinterest Linda Svehla

“Ridin’ fence were the happiest two years of my life,” Will told me later.  “Hated to see ‘em end.”

In 1979 I was driving from Iowa back to San Diego to start another adventure, I took a detour to visit him in Idaho.  He was living in Ketchum, small town, two bars, I found him on the first try.  We were bellied up to the bar as we chatted over bottles of Bud.  I was on his left, and a cowboy on his right was muttering things to him, and Will kept waving the drunk off until the drunk gave him a shove, and when Will turned toward him he caught a beer bottle across his face, and the fight was on.  I picked up my beer and cautiously moved around them o the floor to stand behind the bar next to the bartender. 

“Aren’t you going to help your brother?” she asked.

I shook my head.  “He has much more experience at this than I do.”

Later, Will and the drunk were buying each other beers, Will complaining that one of his teeth was loose.  As we chatted, I mentioned that I had joined the California National Guard with a six-year commitment to avoid going to Vietnam.  “You were always tougher than me,” I said. “After what happened with you, I figured they would have made minced meat out of me.”  He used the beer bottle to slowly push his cowboy hat back on his head, gave me his hard eye look and said, “Roger that.”  He took a sip of beer, looked at me again and his eyes softened.  “You know, Bobby, I think saving your ass is the only good thing that came out of me going to Vietnam.”

The next day we went over to his friend Michael’s house and had a conversation about coming home from war.

Michael and Will

As a lawyer doing trials with Jack Kegel my role was to take notes as witnesses testified, and then at night we would sit around a kitchen table and I would take those notes and I could repeat word-for-word every bit of a witness’s testimony and we would use that to prepare final argument and jury instructions.  So, while Michael and Will talked, I took notes and that night I transcribed it.  I later turned those notes into the following story. I apologize for the condition of the paper, but it has many miles on it.

That was 1979. In 1990 my brother committed suicide in a dark alley behind that bar in Ketchum, shooting himself. I think he chose to go out that way to punish himself for what he perceived were his crimes in Vietnam.  When he died the only things he had in his pockets were his military discharge papers and the story I had written.

My brother used to say, “You have to be man enough to stand under your hat.”  I can’t claim to be a cowboy, but I will wear my cowboy hat in honor of a true cowboy that made the ultimate sacrifice because he believed that when duty calls, you step up.  I believe he was killed by a bullet he fired in Vietnam in 1969, it just took 21 years for it to hit home.

In November I will wear my black Stetson hat like it is a black mourning band on my sleeve.

Godspeed Will, I hope you found peace in the great beyond, riding fence, stopping now and then to glance back over your shoulder at the mountains you loved so much.

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

8 thoughts on “The War in Vietnam, An Aching Sadness, and a Cowboy Hat

  1. Oh Bob, it’s hard choke down the sobs. Still. My best friend Bill went to the jungle and and died over there, but came back Will. My experiences over there could never compare, yet I came back to ‘the world’ bitter and filled with an anger that still rears its ugly head. Will was one of the few people I could talk with and feel I was being understood. You have pulled my heart strings, Bobby, in a way that your brother, and mine, was so capable of doing. Thank you for the tears. I have survived and soon will be 75. I still carry the bitterness, but not on my forehead thanks to all the Wills I have known. Ferg

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Ferg, you were always a good friend to Will and to me. I was talking about you last week telling Sis and her daughter KC about you introducing me to the White album. I’m proud to be on your team.


  2. Thanks for writing this Bobby. I read, cry, read some more, cry some more. The war ruined our brothers. The war wrecked our families. Nothing was ever the same. Thank you for loving Bill and being there for him. Oh that we all could have done more. You’re right, the bullet just took a long time to travel. Mike and Martin’s bullets are still traveling, but the damage was done a long time ago. Thank you for being such a great brother. Our parents are so grateful for all you did. That I truly believe. I love you Bob. The best brother ever.


  3. Dear Robert,

    This really grabbed my heart. Though I didn’t lose anyone personally in the war, ALL of the vets could have been my brothers, boyfriends, or husband–so my heart is tender on the subject you’ve written about. I’m no heroine, but when all the biographies written by vets were coming out, I happened to be working my favorite job–in a library. I think I read most of those books, and I took on the pain which still ripples from that war.

    I wanted to “do something” useful, helpful, to show vets I cared. I got in touch with the founder of Point Man Ministries, told him I didn’t have any money to give, or job skills they could use–but I could write thank you letters to Vietnam vets (anonymously), if he thought that would make a difference, and if he’d provide me a list of names/addresses. He was happy to give me the list–which not surprisingly contained many guys housed in prisons.

    I wrote pretty much the same letter to all of them–thanking them for their service; acknowledging and offering condolences for the many losses they suffered. Before the Point Man founder died of a heart attack (after surviving being shot up in a rice paddy years), he told me that my letters had been a blessing, and cited one example: a guy he visited in prison who’d never been known to smile, approached him one day with a big grin on his face and tapped his breast pocket–then showed him the letter from “some lady”, which he’d been carrying around for a week or more.

    This led to me doing the scary part–reaching out in person to a local vets’ center; they were losing funding for the center–and asked if I could write to the various politicians and try to persuade them to rethink their decision to cut the funding. I did my best, but you won’t be surprised that my “begging” fell on deaf ears.

    The very scariest, but ultimately most rewarding experience, was when I approached a regular library visitor: he was a mountain of a man, huge, with a killer frown of angry distrust–and I was 5-feet, 100 pounds. I took a deep breath and asked him if he’d be interested in telling me his war experiences…because I was reading all their books, and I really cared to KNOW. Apparently he could see I was sincere–he said he’d think about it.

    When he came in the next week, he said he’d tell me his story–but he’d have to do it on a cassette tape, not in person. That was fine with me–I knew he was married and didn’t want any trouble! He brought in the tape, I listened to it several times before mailing it back to him with a letter of thanks.

    I watch every documentary that airs on PBS, and I cry through them all. The pain just never stops–not for the vets and their families and friends, and not for “some lady” who happens to care from a distance.

    Hope this comment doesn’t wear you out, too lengthy–you can always delete it…thank you for sharing about your brother; I’m so sorry for his losses–and yours, in losing him. May God bless and comfort you and your family abundantly, as we honor our vets this November. Sincerely, Leslie B


    1. Thank you for these thoughts, in such lovely prose. I am grateful for your support for vets, and the important part is to learn the lessons and try and keep the leaders responsible. I don’t know if you are familiar with the song, “Come Dance with me” by Janis Ian. My brother gave me his army jacket and I had some of the words written on the back, starting with “I heard of a plan” and ending with “thanks alot”


      1. WOWWWWW, what a treasure the jacket is! I do wish I had more faith that our leaders would get smarter, more responsible…I’ll just keep praying. Take care! 🙂


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