By SUSAN REINHARDT
A Veteran’s Journey Back Home: A story I had no idea was a complete lie until publication!!!
In January 2010, Andy Marlow entered the Veteran’s Restoration Quarters a broken man, his body torn and pieced together with plastic and titanium, his mind muddled with the alcohol he poured into his system to forget.
One of the big reasons those who fight for our country turn to liquor is to forget. A young man entering and battling a war can witness and endure too much.
I met Andy for lunch at the VRQ, a 7-acre, homelike center on Tunnel Road near the VA Medical Center. We talked over chicken, vegetables, mashed potatoes and iced tea.
The Veterans Restoration Quarters is a program of the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry that offers shelter to previously homeless veterans and helps them get re-established in the community.
Andy is an affable man who talks a lot and throws around his smile and laughter as if his life had been the American Dream. Not a nightmare from horrific circumstances.
This tall, lean man in the Rustler jeans with a silver-studded belt, hardly touched his food as he told a story almost hard to believe.
Yet all of it is true. Each of the more than 200 men housed here has a story, typically a brutal tale of misfortune after service to our country. They entered the military in their late teens, saw too much, and returned home craving substances to ease the mental pictures of war and the pain from rebuilding their lives.
Many, like Andy, carry metal and shrapnel in their bodies. They are too hurt to work, too mind-wrecked to care.
Andy is no exception. He was born and raised in Fairview, in a house the family kept for decades until the bank got it a year ago when Andy hit rock bottom and hit the bottle from the time he awakened until he crawled into bed at night, often a cot in the Buncombe County jail for a pair of DWI’s.
His life began unraveling as a teenage boy when he and his twin brother Johnny signed up with the Army. They joined the 101st Airborne, and at 19, were shipped to Vietnam at the end of March, 1966.
“We’d been there about a week when we got orders to take Hamburger Hill,” Andy said, his cheeks sunken from explosives ripping his lower jaw during combat.
The date was April 6, 1966. His original plan included college and a life in the country with his wife who was pregnant with their first son at the time of enlistment.
On that April day, his unit flew over the infamous Hamburger Hill, and fought to take Dong Ap Bia in the Shau Valley where one of the most deadly and well-known battles in Vietnam occurred.
Andy said there were some 258 men from the 101st and 82nd Airborne units. Only 38 survived that brutal battle, Johnny dying from a bullet through his head.
Andy caught a bullet in his shoulder, one of the lesser injuries.
“Only 22 are alive today,” Andy said, sipping his tea, pushing food around his plate. “I keep in touch with a few.”
After Johnny’s death, the War Department sent notices to the Marlow twins’ parents that both boys had been killed during duty.
“I got on a plane with his body,” Andy recalls. “Mom and Dad went down to Fayetteville expecting to pick up two coffins. When they rolled his coffin off the plane and I walked beside it, Mama fainted and Dad turned white as a ghost.”
Andy said he and Johnny were tight and looked exactly alike, except Johnny had a small black mole on his face. They often fooled dates, switching and pretending to be the other.
Losing Johnny tore Andy apart, but he returned to Vietnam, gaining medals and honors and fought as both a Green and Black Beret. He decided he’d go back to ’Nam for revenge.
“I was angry my twin was dead,” he said. “I wanted to kill every one of those Communists I could find. I changed. I became a killer.”
But other killers awaited him, ambushing the American soldiers and turning the country’s expected win into a bloody travesty.
On Oct. 15, 1973, as Andy and a friend simultaneously jumped out of a plane, the friend fell into a land mine which blew him to pieces, the remainder of fiery shrapnel ripping into Andy and, “nearly cutting me in two,” he said.
The explosion took out both hips, his lower face (now rebuilt) and part of his bowel. He had no choice but to come home, his body unable to withstand more fighting.
He arrived a hero in a patriot’s eyes, a baby-killer in protester’s eyes, and a well-decorated First Lieutenant with three Purple Hearts.
He returned to this area, started driving 18-wheelers and raising his four children with his wife and his mother in the family’s Fairview home place.
In 1975, knowing people in Texas, they all packed up and arrived there, Andy working on a ranch and finishing college at the University of Texas in Arlington where he earned a degree in bookkeeping and accounting.
He missed his home and came back in 1989, working through the pain from his metal hips for the United States Post Office for two years. His body couldn’t withstand the heavy loads, and he finally took advantage of his
For a while, life on the farmland proved quiet and healing. It all changed when his oldest son, who’d been in the National Reserves, was called to Kuwait in March 1991. Within weeks, a missile blew his Hummer apart and everyone, including his son, died.
Three months later, his wife endured a massive hemorrhage and bled to death due to undetected ovarian cancer, causing an ovary to rupture.
Two beloved family members dead within 12 to 13 weeks. Andy fell into a deep depression, finding temporary relief in liquor bottles, trying to block the pain with fifths of devils.
Morning, noon and night he drank, never becoming a wobbling drunk, but getting two DWI’s within a year.
The judge sent him to jail. This was home now.
A man who nearly gave his entire body and soul to his country, now slept in a cell, and in the meantime, lost the second most important thing besides family – the home place off Garren Creek Road. The bank took the house, and memories and heartache took Andy.
“I was in the bottle every day,” he said, standing and taking his virtually untouched tray of food to the trashcan in the kitchen. “I’d drink from 8 or 9 in the morning until 3 or 4 in the morning on my path to self destruction. I wanted to die.”
After landing in jail for his second DWI, a case manager arrived and the two began talking. He knew of a place where Andy could rebuild his life: The VRQ.
While in jail, he had a dream, more like a vision.
“I dreamed about what I was doing to myself,” he said. “I was brought up with religion and heard a voice saying, ‘Is this what you were taught? What you taught us?’ I woke up in a cold sweat scared to death.”
He had the chance to enter the Veteran’s Restoration Headquarters in Asheville, where men shredded by bullets and flashbacks, come to start over.
He never took another drink and his picture shines behind a glass frame on the Wall of Achievement.
“I’ve been here since January 2010,” he said. He’s even got a job as the coordinator of service hours for the men.
He often thought of the bank taking his beloved home, and his mother having no choice but to move into a nursing facility. The guilt of picturing her there plagued him every day.
On a good note, he’s once again enjoying relationships with his three living children.
“We’re close now, but not when I was drinking because that wasn’t me. I became something I didn’t like.”
Nothing short of a miracle unfolded when Andy fell on ice last winter and broke his leg. The VA noticed he was considered 100 percent disabled for more than 38 years, yet his pay reflected only 70 percent of the benefits in which he was entitled.
Andy adjusted his cap and ran his hand through his salt-and-pepper hair.
“I got $362,000 at one time for back pay,” he said. “That was 10 months ago.”
The first thing he did was call the bank. He asked what had happened to his mother’s house.
“I discovered it was going on the block the very next morning.
“I said, ‘Can I get the house?’ and they said, ‘If you have the money.’”
Andy paid the $31,750 and used more of his windfall to restore it and fix the place like it was in better days. He also bought land near the home and saved the rest of his money.
“I got Mom out of the nursing home and packed everything she had. She said, ‘Where are we going?’
“And I said, ‘You’re going home.’”
At 94, his mother still holds a sharp mind. Another woman lives with her and tends her physical needs. One day, when she passes away, Andy will go back home, too.
But not now. He loves the VRQ and helping men like himself rework their lives and move forward.
“I feel useful here,” he said. “I got back into church and am a mentor to a fellow trying to stop drinking.
“This is where I belong for now.”
Within moments after this was published, relatives and friends began a massive e-mail campaign. They told me Andy made the whole story up, that none of it was true. None of it!!
As a veteran journalist with more than 30 years experience, I couldn’t believe it. I had sent the story over to the VRQ for several officials to read.
They all “signed off,” on it.
After three days of trying to press Andy for documents, he cracked.
I felt like Nancy Grace. He admitted to making the entire story up. All of it.
I thought I would be fired from the paper. Instead, I wrote a long retraction and turned it into something positive, honoring vets who did serve and didn’t lie.
The lesson I learned was no matter how much you believe someone, always ask for records, and not just people who’ll “sign off,” on the material as truth.
I’ve never been more embarrassed.
This is one reason I prefer writing fiction. No one will call you to the gallows for not telling the truth.