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Vietnam vet's suicide haunts those left behind

Nov. 9, 2012 - 07:35AM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 9, 2012 - 07:35AM  |  
Jeff Davis committed suicide years after he returned from Vietnam.
Jeff Davis committed suicide years after he returned from Vietnam. (Handout photo)
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WASHINGTON — Alice Franks is a long-distance runner.

On Veterans Day nine years ago, while walking to the starting line of a 10-mile race along the Potomac River, Franks suddenly discovered she was in a place she had long tried to avoid. Before her was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Wall where the names of 58,282 Americans are carved into black granite.

Nineteen years before, Franks' husband — a decorated Vietnam veteran — had sat down in front of an oak tree facing the Wall and killed himself. The place harbored too much pain, and now Alice was confronting it by accident for the first time.

On Sept. 15, 1984, Jeffery Davis left his shift as a Washington, D.C., plainclothes police officer and, as he often did, went drinking. After midnight he ended up at the Wall he had described as "foreboding." Later, the Bronze Star winner walked away into the night and shot himself with his service revolver.

He was 36, and he left behind Alice and their two children, Kelly, 6, and Scott, 3.

Fellow Vietnam vets holding a vigil at the memorial, which had been dedicated two years earlier, found his body the next morning.

Back at their suburban Maryland home, neighbors took in the children as Alice Franks grieved. Daughter Kelly Davis, now 34, still remembers her excitement at preparing to show her mother the neighbor kids' new Cabbage Patch dolls when Alice came to tell her that her dad was dead.

Scott, now 31, and the father of two young boys, has no memories of the day. But through the years, as this family worked through anger, grief and guilt, all three have come to an understanding peace around the father, husband, veteran.

And they have three distinct views of the Wall.

On this Veterans Day Sunday, another generation is fighting in Afghanistan. On Tuesday, the nation will commemorate the 30th anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial, a scar and place of healing for veterans of that war.

The day they found Davis' body, one veteran called it "the wailing wall." Another said he had seen Davis.

"He was very sad, he was mourning, he was weeping, he was talking to some of the vets," Terry McConnell told a reporter for the Associated Press that day.

His family knew he had been spiraling downward, that he could not escape two memories in particular, and that he felt comfortable only with fellow Vietnam veterans, many carrying burdens of the war that began 50 years ago. Vietnam raged for over a decade, prompting massive anti-war protests back home, a "Silent Majority" questioning whether the U.S. was in to win it, and indifferent, even hostile, treatment of veterans as they returned from the war.

In the three decades since it was built, the Wall has been a grieving, consoling, healing, remembering place for Vietnam veterans. Volunteers say today's visitors also are likely to be children or grandchildren of the Vietnam generation coming to remember and understand.

Davis' late mother, Betty, said her son had come to visit his hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, just a week before — a visit that Alice Franks and her children believe was a good-bye to his family.

"He told me, ‘That's the ugliest thing I ever saw. I don't know why they put it up,' " Betty Davis said then, of the Wall. "He didn't like it, and I don't know what he was doing down there."

His family has struggled with that question for 28 years.

As it approaches its 30th anniversary on Nov. 13, the Wall remains the most intensely personal of this city's war memorials.

From an approaching distance, the 58,000 names attest to the enormity of the losses. Up close, the black granite reflects viewers, visually reminding them that every name leaves behind mourners.

Some nights, you can still hear quiet crying. People still come from all over to etch a name or to leave meaningful mementos, from letters to letter jackets.

Long-time Wall volunteer Nancy Smoyer says the Vietnam Veterans Memorial still unites and heals in almost mystical ways.

Smoyer, who served as a Red Cross volunteer in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 and whose brother's name is on the Wall, says for many veterans, "Vietnam is the peak experience of our lives, the touchstone by which we test every other experience, every other relationship, every other high, every other low."

Some veterans still arrive, after years of staying away, only to find the experience too intense to approach the Wall. So they hang back in a cluster of oaks, never quite getting there.

Volunteers call them "Tree vets."

Even though her dad's name is not on the wall, Kelly Davis has been to the memorial several times, finding comfort knowing it was where he had spent his last moments.

"I realize for a lot of people that would be horrific or off-putting," she says. "But for some reason I have found it useful. I find it peaceful just to stand there and remember him."

Scott Davis, a Navy veteran who served in the Persian Gulf during the Iraq War, has never been there.

"I never felt the Wall was something I was overcoming as a fear," he says. "I don't know if that is kind of a subconscious mental block, but I never had the desire to go down there."

Both think their dad's name should be on the Wall.

"I do think that that war killed him, I absolutely do," Kelly says.

Kelly and Scott Davis are full of life, and close. Kelly is a lawyer, has just sworn off the video games she loves and has started running, like her mother. Scott, laid back, smiles when Kelly tells him the women in the family demand a sister for Scott's boys, Tyler, 2, and Kevin, born in September. Their mother is one of the region's top-ranked runners for her age group, and both children say they are inspired at how committed she is to her job as a research biologist.

Scott, who works for a financial services company, recalls coming home from deployment in uniform and people overwhelming him with handshakes in airports. The children wonder whether it would have been different if their dad had gotten that reception.

But they would rather talk about now. And throughout a 90-minute interview, they stress that they believe they are stronger today because of what they have gone through, and because of an empathy they have developed through their father.

"I have no anger about the situation," Kelly says. "I get it, as much as I can, that he experienced some real horrible stuff. I wish he hadn't done it. I wish I could have a conversation as an adult with him." Her brother chimes in: "I have zero resentment, zero anger. I do miss him. I don't even know the guy and I miss him."

Peace was elusive. Their mother remarried a "wonderful man," Kelly says. But as Scott got older, he rebelled.

"I was pretty angry," Scott says. "I got into trouble, I lashed out. I felt abandoned almost." Growing up, he often pulled out a newspaper story about his father's death.

"I used to read it over and over until I got through it without crying," he says. "I learned to accept the situation. It made me a lot stronger."

He finished high school at a military academy, and his family says he grew up in the Navy. Ultimately, he came to believe his dad "was a strong guy. He did some amazing things, and I am very proud of him." Scott and his stepfather have reconciled.

Kelly says her grief finally caught up with her in elementary school.

"I don't think I had a sense of abandonment, necessarily," she says. "It just made me incredibly sad. I felt like maybe I was never going to know a part of me because he was gone."

At about 14, Kelly reached out on one of the earliest Internet bulletin boards seeking veterans who might have known her father. Nothing specific came from it, but the many responses of support and sympathy she got from strangers helped her heal.

One wrote her that "I didn't know your father, but he was my brother, and that makes me your uncle," she recalls.

Alice Franks tried to answer all the questions her children had and to stress their father's easygoing humor, his love of books, and his close family in Texas.

But the pain and questions were never far away.

"Children talk, even if the parents don't," Alice says. "A lot of bad things were said about him by the neighborhood children. And that affected both of the kids very much."

Today, both kids imagine the adult conversations they might have today with their dad. Relatives have told Scott he looks a lot like his father, and he says he's at peace with that.

"There was certainly a turning point in my life when I stopped feeling sad about it and started feeling like it was a strength that I had that maybe he gave me," Scott says. "That maybe he was preparing me for something."

"I absolutely agree that both of my kids are stronger because of this, and I think I am, too," Alice says "In different ways, for all of us, it has given coping skills, an ability to understand the problems of others, compassion, a more worldly view, you name it."

Her biggest regret? "That Jeff never got to see how they became, and how proud he would have been about how they turned out."

Army Sgt. Jeffery Davis won his Bronze Star for heroism in a battle in the A Shau Valley, in which most of his platoon of the 101st Airborne company was killed or wounded.

When he and Alice met after the war, he rarely talked about it, although she would later learn battle was one of two memories he could not shake.

His thoughts "were pretty buried." Alice says. "He talked about them with his friends. He had several police (friends) that were also Vietnam veterans, and they consoled and comforted one another — often, unfortunately, with alcohol and at late hours." This same tight knot of Vietnam veterans watched epic Vietnam War films "The Deer Hunter" and "Apocalypse Now" "over and over and over again," Alice says. "They couldn't let it go."

From Vietnam, he had frequently written a second cousin, Anita Magures, who was six years older and had mothered him during summer visits to Texas.

At first, his letters "were all the macho, whip-ass hype that he was sold when he went into the service," Magures says. "But by the end ... he was counting the seconds" before he came home.

He wrote that the U.S. was "taking a beating" and "it hardly seems worth the effort to do anything." He was angry that good men, "buddies of mine," were getting killed while the survivors were hearing news about how their fellow service members were being treated when they returned home. After his Bronze Star battle, Jeff wrote that it was the closest yet he had come to "having my bod shot up and boxed home."

"Maybe in 20 or 30 years I can tell my grandkids about it," he wrote. He was 19.

Just before he died, Jeff took up skydiving, and Alice says she believes he did it to try to find the thrills he had gotten in the military. But nothing, she says, ever seemed to replicate Vietnam. As he spent more and more time with his fellow Vietnam veterans, she had begun considering divorce in the months before he died.

In the midst of anti-war demonstrations and riots, the District's police force was beefing up from 3,000 in 1968 to 5,100 in 1971. Many new recruits, like Davis, came right out of the military, and many were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, former Fraternal Order of Police president Gary Hankins says. The treatment some vets were getting at home inflicted more wounds.

"To come back scarred and to have your own country turn against you because of what you did was a terrible thing," Alice says. "And it did weigh very heavily on him and his friends. It is why they stuck together in a knot and didn't try to reach out. They never knew who was going to be sympathetic to what they did."

Some time before he died, Jeff told Alice about the second Vietnam memory he could not shake.

Fighting over a Viet Cong-controlled village, he believed he had killed a child. "It was one of those split-second decisions they had to make," Alice says. "And it haunted him, just horribly."

After Davis' death, his police colleagues said he had been deeply bothered by a murder case involving a young girl.

That Veterans Day, Alice Franks made it past the Wall to her race, shaken but resolved. "It was a real emotional jumble for me," she says, "but I knew I had to get through it because I wanted to run that race."

She glanced at the oak trees as she walked past, wondering which one Jeff leaned against in his final moments.

"It no longer completely does me in the way it once did," she says of the Wall, which she has walked past since. "That isn't to say I still don't look at the oak trees, because I do, and I still wonder which was the one. And I probably always will."

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