I was raised Roman Catholic and was taught as a child that to gain forgiveness for our sins, we must do penance. Then, as an adult, I spent years assisting friendly troops on the battlefield with signals intelligence (the intercept and exploitation of the enemy’s radio communications) in Vietnam and escaped under fire when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese invaders in April 1975. I went on doing the same kind of work elsewhere, though where and what I did are still classified.
One consequence of my time in combat is Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), a mental disorder that results from participation in fatal violence. After suffering from the disorder for years, I finally found a partial therapy: helping others. In the early 1980s, I volunteered to take care of gay men dying of AIDS. Over a period of five years, I cared for seven dying men. Then science discovered a way of keeping AIDS patients alive. So I shifted to caring for hospice patients. I went on with that volunteer work until I was too old to be able to lift my patients, a necessity in caring for the dying.
One of the symptoms of PTSI is feelings of guilt. I was complicit in the deaths of an unknown number of enemy on the battlefield. One cannot be involved in the death of another human being without a sense of guilt. So in a very real sense, my work with the dying was a penance for my involvement in the deaths of men on the battlefield. My guilt was assuaged by helping men die.
I was reminded of my years of penance recently when I came across a news item reporting that the Whitman-Walker Clinic, the organization I volunteered with to care for dying AIDS patients, will be opening to a new facility on the St. Elizabeths East campus in the District of Columbia in late summer. The press report described Whitman-Walker as a nonprofit serving patients with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), another name for AIDS. It says the clinic started 50 years ago in a church basement.
I can be justifiably proud of my work with the dying. It was something no one else wanted to do to. I loved everyone of my patients and still grieve over their deaths. But my life is far richer for having helped them die in peace.