More than anything else in Vietnam, it was the doll that got to 20-year-old Ted Mangum.
“We were going through a village where there’d just been a firefight” in 1970, Mangum, 65, told me last weekend. There was a big ditch into which a bulldozer was pushing dead Vietnamese bodies, piled high in a tangible testament to man’s unquenchable capacity for collateral carnage.
“Why they got that baby doll on that pile?” Mangum asked himself as his platoon cruised past. Upon noticing a red stain on the doll’s Carolina blue dress and realizing that it was a human being, he said “‘I wish somebody would just go close her eyes.’ That’s when I made a promise to the good Lord, ‘If you get me out of this I’ll do whatever I can to make the world a better place.’”
Scores of people in North Carolina will attest that Mangum has done that. Without boasting or rancor, he told of the doctors, lawyers, actors and soldiers who have thanked him for his service to them as kids, through a program he started in Durham called America’s Child RELAY, which stands for Research Education and Literacy Assistance for Youth.
The irony is that he was able to help just about everybody but himself.
Mangum and I had been in touch over the years – I spoke to kids at one of his programs 15 years ago – and he called me several months ago seeking to publicize his effort to get help from the Department of Veterans Affairs so he could come in from the cold, literally and figuratively. We kept missing each other, but when I reached him last week, there was something in his voice I hadn’t heard in a while: hope.
Mangum had, with herculean help from his VA social worker, gotten an apartment in Raleigh. It’s just a little one-bedroom thing, he said, but he spoke of it as pridefully as one might the Taj Mahal, the Biltmore Estate and the White House rolled into one.
Things weren’t nearly as rosy when he returned from Nam in 1971.
“The worst thing I could do that first year back... was put on a job application that I had been in Vietnam. They automatically assumed you were on drugs, crazy,” he said. “I started telling them I was in jail for breaking and entering.
“The first six weeks back, you feel on top of the world because you’re back with all of your arms and legs. After that, it’s like somebody dropped a building on top of you with no windows or doors and you can’t get out,” he said. “That’s the way I’ve been the past 45 years. That building has been on me.”
Mangum credited – no, he praised – VA social worker Seth Horton with not just helping to lift the building off him, but with finding him one in which to live. “I’ll give that young boy credit,” Mangum said when talking about his improved circumstances. “He fought for me. He knew I’d been on the streets in Washington, and he said, ‘We’re not going to let you be homeless this year.’”
Mangum’s work with young people has been due to his altruism, sure, to the promise he made when rolling past that mound of bodies. Part of it, though, he admitted, has been an act of self-preservation. “I worked 18 to 21 hours a day sometimes,” he told me, “because I didn’t want to go to sleep. I’d have nightmares.”
It cost him his home and marriage, he said, but he spent most of his days and nights working with America’s Child RELAY, the program he founded in 1986. “I was in denial, had to sneak to the VA for treatment, because ain’t nobody gonna put their child in a program with a vet with PTSD,” he said.
Tyrone Stroud’s mother put him in the RELAY program, and Stroud, now four years from being able to retire from the U.S. Army, said, “It gave me direction. I was just out there doing nothing... RELAY allowed us to flourish and be creative.”
Stroud received associate and bachelor’s degrees from the University of Maryland University College and a master’s in Information Technology.
Speaking of nightmares, Mangum said he spent years trying to convince the VA not only that he was suffering from his war experience – the term “post traumatic stress disorder” hadn’t been invented in 1971 – but even, dammit, that he’d been in the war. “They said they couldn’t find any record of me being in Vietnam,” he said. “I told them I either went or I had one of the worst year-long nightmares in the history of the world.”
One way he was able to convince them that he was there was by having a fellow soldier, who said he met Mangum when both were picking up and bagging body parts after a mortar attack near Chu Lai, write a letter last year to the VA on his behalf. I read the letter. It’ll break your heart.
When Gerald Ford was sworn in 41 years ago to succeed Richard Nixon as President, Ford said, “our long national nightmare is over.”
’Tain’t true. Our national nightmare, our shame, really, won’t be over until we do right by our veterans. Despite what he called his “45-year fight” for benefits, Mangum said he knows fellow soldiers who’ve fared even worse than he.
Now that he has a home that’s not a city sidewalk, though, his own long personal nightmare is over and perhaps he’ll be able to sleep peacefully.
Perhaps we’ll be able to, also.