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Bill Ebeltoft's Brother Remembers The Life Of A Hero Whose Life Changed After Vietnam


Not everyone who lost his life in Vietnam died there. That is the opening line of an obituary for William Ebeltoft. He was known as Bill, a decorated war hero from the small town of Dickinson, N.D. He died on Sunday, and his brother Paul wrote the story of Bill's bravery, his trauma and his family's pain. The piece describes a man who lived three lives - before, during and after Vietnam. After the obituary was published in The Dickinson Press, it went viral. Senator Jon Tester of Montana, ranking member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, was moved enough to read it on the Senate floor yesterday and added these remarks.


JON TESTER: It's incredibly powerful because, quite frankly, it's about one man, but it's actually about a generation of men and women who served in Vietnam.

SHAPIRO: When I spoke today with Bill's brother Paul Ebeltoft, he began by telling me what Bill was like in his first life before Vietnam.

PAUL EBELTOFT: Well, my brother was a very, very talented man. He was not a student. He did not do particularly well in formal education, but he did particularly well in all things that he tried to do outside of the classroom. He was an avid low-handicap golfer, a high-average bowler, a hunter of great skill, a trap shooter of state championship medal-winning type. He was a partier, a very, very friendly man.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

EBELTOFT: He had hundreds of friends. He told jokes well. He danced well - just a fellow that everyone wanted to meet and to be friends with.

SHAPIRO: And then came Vietnam, where he experienced horrors that he would rarely speak of and also, you say, performed acts of valor that are a significant part of his legacy. Tell us the story of one of them.

EBELTOFT: I recounted in the obituary a story - flying his helicopter in for a resupply mission but, on his own and with great bravery, changing it into a rescue mission for wounded soldiers. And it recounts the skill and the bravery which he exemplified throughout the war.

SHAPIRO: And after the war, you say he wrestled daily with his demons. What impact did the experience have on him?

EBELTOFT: Bill was changed right away. My parents met him - my parents, who loved him deeply, met him in Hawaii for his R&R six months into his tour. And they came back telling me - warning me, I think - that Bill had changed. And it was true. He made a valiant attempt at reentry into civilian life, but he was unable to sustain that. He fell more and more into psychosis. He was back in Vietnam. He was awaiting a general who he would fly somewhere. He was going to take troops into the jungle. He slipped away from us in the course of about a decade after he mustered out of the army.

SHAPIRO: Why do you think this memory of a man who lived through so much, published in a small-town North Dakota newspaper, has resonated with so many people? It has been shared thousands of times, written about by national publications. What do you think it is about your brother's life story?

EBELTOFT: Well, I think, Ari, that it probably causes people to hug their loved ones a little tighter and maybe a little more often. It's a sadness that we won't know what Bill could have become but for the vicissitudes of war and life. But it sort of, I think, turns into a lesson to all of us who are still able to try to do more. Anyway, that's what I get from the hundreds of emails that I've received. And I know online, it has many thousands of views. The thread is a chance for those of us who are living to do more not only for Vietnam-era veterans but for ourselves and for other veterans as well.

SHAPIRO: Well, I think the response has proven the truth of the last line of this obituary, where you wrote, it is not possible to wrap your arms around a loved one who leaves, but it is possible to wrap your heart around a memory. Bill's will be well taken care of.

EBELTOFT: Yeah, it certainly will. Even though death isn't the opposite of life, but a part of it, it is very sad when that part arrives. And we have his memories only, but we will cherish it.

SHAPIRO: Paul Ebeltoft, brother of William "Bill" Ebeltoft, a Vietnam veteran who died on Sunday.

Thank you for remembering your brother with us.

EBELTOFT: Oh, thank you very much for the opportunity to talk with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.