Four of my grandmother’s brothers served in World War II. Three returned safe and sound: Steve from the Army, Charlie from the Merchant Marine, Jimmy from the Navy.
And then, there was my mother’s Uncle Ernie.
He sat on the couch in a white T-shirt, watching TV and smoking cigarettes. His manner was shy, his gaze indirect. I never saw him act angry or even unfriendly, but he was so withdrawn that sometimes, staring at the TV, he seemed catatonic.
As a child, I was told that Ernie suffered from “shell shock,” an old World War I diagnosis. Ernie’s affliction was likely similar to what we call post-traumatic stress disorder.
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I’ve thought about Ernie this fall, as I researched my family history and as Veterans Day approached. We still have far too many veterans returning from combat with debilitating psychological injuries. And, although the diagnoses and treatments have evolved, we offer too little to these men and women.
It wasn’t patriotic zeal that prompted Ernie to join the Marine Corps in July 1941, months before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. It was the Great Depression. The second youngest of nine children, he was unable to find factory work in Passaic, N.J., where his family had moved from Pennsylvania.
So, Ernie enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps and, after his one-year stint ended, he turned to another public employment program: the military.
In the summer of 1942, Ernie shipped out to Guadalcanal in the South Pacific – the first major U.S. offensive against the Japanese. The brutal, six-month battle of attrition killed 7,100 Allied troops and wounded thousands.
Those statistics probably don’t include Pfc. Ernest W. Bush. But by the time he was 23, life as Ernie knew it had ended.
The family never learned the details. Apparently the Marines sent Ernie back to the States for some R&R. He made it to San Francisco, but, then, on a train back to the East Coast, he “cracked up,” in my mother’s words. He spent time in naval hospitals, was discharged and sent “home to recover,” his older sister Alice wrote in a letter to her son (who was awaiting deployment at Normandy).
“Since Grandma can’t handle him,” Alice hosted Ernie at her home in Pennsylvania, where he stared at the kitchen wall, mumbling and smoking four packs of cigarettes a day.
“We fear he’ll burn the house down at night,” Alice wrote, “and we’re both afraid of him.”
Eventually, Ernie went to live at a psychiatric hospital in New Jersey. Details are skimpy, but my mother recalls that he underwent repeated electric shock treatments. Some years later, he was released. With both parents dead, his brother Steve took him in.
The situation was not ideal. While Steve was at work, the neighborhood no-goodniks lured Ernie into card games, and soon his disability payments were gone. So, Steve moved to rural south Jersey, where land was cheap. He bought a little house for himself and his new wife, and another for Ernie across the road.
In the summer, Ernie tended the farm stand, where they sold corn and tomatoes. The neighbors looked out for him, making sure he didn’t wander.
But most of the time, Ernie sat on the couch, smoking cigarettes and watching TV. Or at least staring at the TV: Who knows what was running through his mind? He didn’t tell us. And we didn’t ask. Things could have been worse, but it wasn’t much of a life.
America is home to all kinds of war veterans. Many are as mentally healthy as the next person. They work, raise children, care for family members and enjoy their retirements, as did my great-uncles Steve and Charlie and Jimmy. But too many veterans suffer as Uncle Ernie did. And too many don’t have a brother like Steve looking out for them.
How many Ernies live among us? How many veterans are addicted to drugs and alcohol? How many are unable to work, care for themselves or form stable, loving relationships? And what do we have to offer them?
Surely we can do better.
Carole Bass is a journalist who lives in New Haven, Conn. Ernie Bush died in 1988, less than six weeks after his older brother Steve. She wrote this for the Hartford Courant.