Memorial Day is over, with its picnics, parades, and poignant remembrances of the veterans who gave their lives in America’s wars. But there is one group of vets few want to remember: the ones who went to war, came back tragically changed, committed a crime and were executed.
Vets like Wayne Felde, who arrived in Vietnam on his 19th birthday by choice, not by the draft; who saw heavy action and was wounded; who came back to the U.S. hounded by his memories of death and crippled by what those memories did to him. Drunk, unable to hold down a job or a marriage, in trouble with the law, he was probably trying to kill himself when his gun went off while he was in the back of a police car. The bullet ricocheted and killed an officer. He was sent to death row, and in March of 1988, executed by the state of Louisiana.
Or a veteran like Louis Jones, executed in all our names by the federal government on March 18, 2003. Jones served with great distinction in Grenada and the first Gulf War, where he was exposed to chemical neurotoxins. The effects of the nerve gas and the combat-induced PTSD — often called “Gulf War Syndrome” — turned a model soldier into a sick man, one whose remorse for the killing he committed was deep, who confessed to his crime immediately. Two days after President Bush denied clemency for Sgt. Jones, the invasion of Iraq began.
There are other stories. Perhaps one Memorial Day soon, we’ll have an exemption for veterans who commit capital crimes in part because of what happened to them in our wars. As Felde said to his jury:
I am not a criminal but a troubled and wrecked man. Like many other vets I know what [war] did to me…. Critical wounds do not always pierce the skin, but enter the hearts and minds and dreams of those that are only begging for help so badly needed.
Better still, perhaps the United States will abolish the death penalty for all.