This is the story of a man named Sammy, and although I didn’t know him for a long time, he touched my heart in a way that very few ever have. There was never anything remarkable about Sammy. He was raised in a small town in rural Mississippi, and after high school enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam conflict. Sammy never spoke of his time in Vietnam, but then again when Sammy came home he was unable to speak much at all, because of a herbicide called Agent Orange. Sammy had a condition in which he was unable to control his laughter or crying, not to mention the uncontrollable shaking; tremors which would pass up and down his body several times an hour. By the time I came to this tiny town, Sammy was pretty much seen as the “Village Idiot”.
Having moved from Korea to Mississippi to finish high school, I was the only Army brat in town, once again the new kid, but hopefully this time I would be allowed to stay in one place long enough to graduate with a few good friends. I think this was the reason I didn’t see Sammy as most of my friends did. Something in my gut told me that Sammy had a story.
While in high school, I started a secretarial job at the local police department and soon met Sammy. He came into the department each afternoon for a cup of coffee. My boss, the chief of police, had been career Navy and always made time for Sammy, even though most of their conversations were extremely slow and painful. It only took a few days for me to realize that our “village idiot” was actually a soldier, to the very core of his being, and only because of a seemingly innocent herbicide could he not express those values and beliefs to those around him. I once came in to the department and discovered Sammy crying, his shaking hands spilling coffee onto the floor while he repeated the words “Da Nang”, his body rocking back and forth in his seat. The secretary I was replacing looked over at me and said “Oh, just let him be, it’s only Sammy having one of his fits.” But I knew better, I was already far too familiar with the signs of combat fatigue, as it was known then, not to recognize the signs of a flashback, even in a man who could not communicate. So I did the only thing I knew how to do, I sat next to him, rubbed his shoulder, and just simply talked to him. I didn’t question him or refer to the war, I just talked about how pretty the trees were, blooming on the town square, and how I loved to hear the sounds of the birds in the spring. After a time, Sammy calmed down visibly and soon he was laughing his uncontrollable laugh, trying his best to hold a conversation. Then, in his usual way, he simply stood up and walked out.
As my high school years flew by Sammy became a fixture in my life, as well as a good friend. I was never told his story of the war. I’m not sure anyone in town even knew his story, but that’s not what really matters. A few weeks after I had left for college, I called my grandfather, in a bout of homesickness, and he casually mentioned that Sammy had been found alone the previous evening, dead in a hotel room, presumably of a heart attack.
Sammy Brown had died much in the same way he lived, after he volunteered to serve our country by signing a blank check up to, and including his life, in order to protect the people he loved, and all he received in return was a life of misery, and scorn.
Sometimes I think of Sammy, especially during my own hard times, and I always smile. He was like that, if you bothered to get to know him, he could make people smile. I have no one to give this story to; Sammy never had a wife or children, or even any siblings. I guess I just needed the world to know that I had a friend named Sammy Brown. Although most people would look at him and instantly dismiss him as irrelevant, in my eyes Sammy Brown was a hero. To me, at least, Sammy Brown mattered.