Ralph Ohler Jr.’s Purple Heart arrived in the mail one day in 1986, along with his other medals from his Vietnam service and a letter from President Ronald Reagan.
Ohler refused to look at them. He threw them all away.
His brother, Eric Ohler, of Emmitsburg, retrieved them. He’s been holding on to them ever since, in the small, worn cardboard box in which they came.
His family thinks Ralph Ohler’s war service is a story worth telling.
“My brother is news, but nobody would ever know about it. Everybody knew he just died as a drunk,” Eric said.
In Vietnam, Ralph was in the Army’s Special Forces. He volunteered for what he described to his psychiatrist as “multiple suicide missions,” attempting to rescue prisoners of war. On one mission, he was captured and was imprisoned for two weeks.
His brother, Eric, found out about this decades later, when he saw a prisoner-of-war magazine in their living room and asked Ralph about it.
“He was quiet as long as he wasn’t drinking,” Eric said.
After the war, Ralph struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, headaches, tremors, shrapnel wounds from a grenade and the effects of a combination of Valium and alcohol.
“Now he’s gone, I got so many questions,” Eric said.
Decades after the Vietnam War, veterans’ families are opening up about the emotional support they got — or didn’t get — after their loss.
On May 12, 1967, Gary Wayne Cosgrave became the third Frederick-area soldier to be killed in action in Vietnam, The Frederick News-Post reported at the time.
The day of his death and the day two uniformed men came to Pauline Cosgrave’s home to give her the news about Gary both generally fall near Mother’s Day each year.
Gary was 19, and he died of shrapnel wounds.
“I think about him every day of my life,” Pauline said.
Sitting next to her daughter, Susan Cosgrave Bruchey Hamalainen, at the dining table at Hamalainen’s Middletown home, she dabbed her eyes with a tissue.
“My husband and I, we just couldn’t sleep at night,” Pauline said.
Hamalainen was months away from graduating from Frederick High School when her family learned Gary was killed.
He was about a month away from coming home. He wrote letters just about every week, until the day before he died.
“I won’t be able to send you a grad present, because right now I’m broke,” he wrote to Hamalainen on May 11, 1967. “I’ll get you something when I come home though. Don’t worry!”
Pauline and her husband bought Gary a new Mustang for him to drive when he returned from Vietnam.
It was a floor model, a sleek sports car in Mediterranean blue — something they thought Gary would like. Because of her poor eyesight, Pauline can no longer drive the car, but she’s held on to it for decades.
“It was just for the memory of him,” she said.
Mary Minnis, of Adamstown, has also held on to mementos sent home with her brother’s body — a small black book with the New Testament, a journal of mostly training notes and a letter written to her parents.
“To Mom and Dad,” David Kovac wrote, “If I die here, my wish would be that you wouldn’t cry.”
Minnis was a pre-teen at the time her 19-year-old brother was killed in Vietnam. Her memories of the December day her family received the news — a knock on the door from the captain of her brother’s platoon — are hazy.
But the comfort brought by her brother’s letter— a lifesaver, she said — is a feeling she recalls vividly. It helped her accept, at least somewhat, that her brother was really gone.
But despite the letter, despite the outpouring of support from family and friends in the months after David’s death, the ceremonies and plaques in his name at Morgantown High School in West Virginia, she worried her brother would be forgotten.
“That was my biggest fear, the one thing that always bothered me, that David would have died in vain, his life would be forgotten,” she said.
She wrestled with this fear for decades.
Then, in May 2011, her sister Deborah received a letter with a California return address from man named Xavier Rodriguez.
Rodriguez met David Kovac in Vietnam. They served together in the same U.S. Marine Corps company and became good friends, he wrote.
In the letter, Rodriguez, who was with David when he died in December 1965, described how David was killed, shot through the head during an ambush in a rice paddy.
He died instantly, without pain, Rodriguez wrote.
He tried for years to locate David’s family after he returned from Vietnam, but was unsuccessful until then.
That this man remembered her brother and continued to search for his family all those years later struck a chord with Minnis.
She continued to write to Rodriguez. Later that year, in November, they met.
It was Veterans Day weekend in Washington, D.C., the time each year that members of the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, travel across the country for a reunion.
Minnis, who had never attended previously, recalled the moment when she arrived in 2011, unsure what to expect. Across the room, she locked eyes with the captain who’d delivered the news of her brother’s death to her family nearly 50 years before.
“As soon as we saw each other, we both cried,” she recalled.
In the ensuing hours and days, she grew close to the group, particularly the five people who knew and remembered David. They visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where Minnis found her brother’s name on the long, black wall. They celebrated the Marine Corps’ birthday at the nearby Iwo Jima Memorial.
Most of all, they talked, sharing photos and stories and mementos.
“It’s hard because it reopens a lot of things,” Minnis said. “But it gave some closure, too.”
Retired Chief Warrant Officer Five Fred L. Shinbur, of Hagerstown, was in the Army during the Vietnam War.
“When I came home in ’69, there were so many things going through my mind, so many emotional ups and downs,” he said.
At the time, he said, there was little support for families who had lost someone during the war, outside of their existing connections to church groups and friends.
Post-traumatic stress disorder distanced veterans from their families.
“It certainly wasn’t anything like Korea or World War II. Folks just didn’t understand it, and there was just no help line at that time,” Shinbur said.
Eric Ohler rarely handles the medals his brother discarded. He’s kept them in their original packaging.
He’s also trying to find records of his brother’s service, a months-long pursuit that has turned up few answers.
“They’re saying they’re classified,” he said. “Look what he went through, and nobody knows about it.”
Ralph Ohler told a Department of Veterans Affairs psychiatrist that he was part of the Army’s Special Forces Alpha team in Phu Bai, Vietnam. He said he was married to a Vietnamese woman, and they had twins. When his wife and twins were killed by a rocket attack, he started volunteering for suicide missions.
The days he spent soon after as a prisoner of war would not be in the military’s records, he told the psychiatrist, because it was classified information.
Ralph told his family little about the war. He returned to his parents’ house. He had few friends, and came and went in a daze.
Ralph’s and Eric’s mother, Leah Ohler, wrote a letter to The Frederick News-Post in 1994.
“Yes, there were times my son shed tears,” Leah wrote. “They were not for himself but for the boys who had died over there and he couldn’t save them. Ralph Jr. often said he should have died with his men.”
Eric remembers Ralph as a brother who enjoyed hunting and fishing and who was in the lead role at Emmitsburg High School’s production of “The Sound of Music.”
Ralph managed to pull his life together. His post-traumatic stress disorder treatment through Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics was successful, and he was discharged in 1986, at age 37.
“He had quit drinking, and he had straightened out,” Eric said.
One year, Ralph’s and Eric’s mother moved their guns to Eric’s house except for an antique shotgun, which was left behind at their sister’s house. Eric thinks Ralph saw the gun when he was looking for Christmas decorations.
On Feb. 22, 1994, Ralph took the gun and fatally shot himself at his parents’ house.
“The grief, the heartache, pain and anger is never ending,” Leah wrote.
Ralph would have been 68 this year.
Hamalainen wonders if she should be thankful her older brother was spared the burdens that many veterans had on their return home: an unwelcoming public, health problems and difficulties adjusting to civilian life.
“What if he would have come back and had all these ailments?” she said. “Would it have been worth it?”
Her brother’s face is engraved on a monument in Frederick’s Memorial Park, along with other soldiers who lived in the Frederick area and fought during the Vietnam War.
She returns there sometimes, to take a picture with his image and remember him.
“You do have the memories, but you have to get past it,” Hamalainen said. “Life goes on.”
Shinbur is directing Maryland Public Television’s two-day event coming this summer honoring veterans of the war. At the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, Maryland Public Television has organized flyovers, entertainment, solemn ceremonies, counseling services and historical exhibits.
The event, “Landing Zone: Maryland,” was partially designed to give veterans and their families some closure.
“We also know that we can help bring some comfort and that’s what this is intended to do,” Shinbur said. “We’re not trying to make this a doom and gloom kind of thing; we want to have some fun.”
Each November, Minnis travels from her home to D.C. for the reunion. She brings a different member of her family every time.
For the veterans, it’s therapeutic, Minnis said. For her, it’s assurance that he will never be forgotten.
“Forever, they’ve put to rest those fears,” she said.