War Wounds

Today, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, Sharon Scott Williams will read the name of her brother Paul, who took his own life shortly after he returned from that war.

April 21, 2003|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

HEDGESVILLE, W.Va. - It has been 33 years. He'd be 54 now, if you can believe it. Sharon Scott Williams can't. She manages a painful smile.

For years, the blonde Baltimore native, 56, a self-described ex-hippie, couldn't say her brother's name without crying. He was only 22 when he died.

She can do it now, but barely. As she tells his story in the kitchen of her new West Virginia home, her voice catches again and again.

She has never known what to say about Paul Scott Jr. Not really.

What could she say, anyway? That she loved him? Everyone knew that - everyone in Parkville, anyway. When they were kids, Paul was such a gas. She'd set up her make-believe restaurant, the tables and the rows of canned vegetables she borrowed from Mom. He'd sit down and place his order. They were buds.

How about that she looked up to him? She did, for sure, though maybe that was less obvious. Take the Vietnam years. After he went over, they swapped letters every few weeks. Sharon, the college liberal, opposed the war in that strange, faraway land. Paul, the straight-shooting patriot, griped about the peace marches he kept hearing about. They just disagreed.

That she understood? Well, she thought she did. She kept an eye on him after he got home in April 1970, and he was settling in - working construction, seeing friends, dating here and there. The screaming fits at night scared her - she ran to his room to wake him up - but who knew what he'd seen over there? Wasn't an adjustment period normal?

That she saw it coming? No, she can't say that. She too was shocked. Baffled that day in September when he went to work and never came home. Shattered on Oct. 9 when they finally found him in his late-model Chevy. It was parked near a favorite fishing hole, a hose running from his exhaust pipe into the cab. He'd left the engine on. No note, no nothing.

Could she say she knows him? How she wishes it were so. Most sisters get a lifetime to know their brothers - birthday parties, talks on the phone, nights of baby-sitting. Sharon has snapshots, letters, a piece of fabric he sent her. After all this time in her drawer, they're still trying to tell her a story.

How about that she's glad? She is that, in fact, just lately - touched that the government will finally say "thank you" today. At the fifth annual "In Memory" ceremony in Washington, organized by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Sharon Scott Williams will get to read her brother's name aloud. So will the loved ones of 300-plus other vets who died due to their service in Vietnam - of Agent Orange-related cancers, of post-traumatic stress, of afflictions that never really went away.

Because Paul didn't die there, his name never appeared on the wall most Americans know and honor. What could she say to that? That his death didn't really matter? Better to say nothing at all.

None of that matters today. She'll say his name, right there beside the wall, loud and clear, in front of a thousand people, read it right into history. It won't explain everything, not by a long shot. But today, it will be, quite simply, the name of a man who gave his life for his country, of a patriot and a hero. It will bring Sharon Scott Williams, and anyone else who's there, a pride and peace that can never be taken away.

When a loved one is gone, you forget some details as time goes by. That's what mementos are for.

Sharon Scott Williams has never loaned hers out and rarely takes them out of the drawer. But as the ceremony nears, she's thinking of Paul. On a bright April morning, she takes them from a yellow envelope and lays them out, one by one, on her kitchen table. They tell of a search for peace.

In the late '50s, that was easy to find. Look there. She and Paul peer out from a giant box. Paul Sr., a carpenter, used to bring those home from construction sites. They'd get in, rock back and forth and see who could tip it over. In that one, she was 9, Paul 7. She has a new Christmas doll. He aims his tommy-gun at the camera. Both are laughing.

Twelve years later, her arm still looks comfortable around him. She made that dress herself and will wear it to a few peace demonstrations. In his new uniform, he'll ship out the following day. His smile tells the story: He's eager to fight for his country.

In that one from 'Nam, he's on top of a bulldozer. She remembers that. In the early days, the Army had him digging roads. He hated it. A deer and squirrel hunter, he wanted to be fighting. Read from his letter in August 1969: "It's not enough action for me," he writes. "I get bored when nothing's going on. I'm submitting another 1049. Do me a favor, sis. Get me our congressman's address so I can bitch ... in case [it] doesn't go through. Don't tell Mom or Dad. I don't want them to know."

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