William Ebeltoft shipped off to Vietnam a state championship-winning trap shooter, a quick-witted lover of parties and Schlitz beer, and able to relate as readily to gruff ranchers as he did to teens who watched him work on his motorcycle and clean his shotguns. He came home a different man.
Burdened by war memories he rarely shared, the North Dakota native and accomplished Army helicopter pilot struggled to regain his footing after he left the service in the early 1970s. After a period in which he seemed to have adjusted to the rhythms of civilian life, his drinking tipped into addiction. He suffered a series of psychotic episodes and spent nearly three decades in a Montana veterans home, where he lived in a sort of pleasant confusion, beloved by the staff who cared for him.
He died there on Sunday, 73 years old.
“It is difficult to write about Bill……… He lived three lives: before, during and after Vietnam.”Paul Ebeltoft
The poignant and unusually candid tribute was published Monday in the Dickinson Press, a small newspaper in a western North Dakota city of 25,000. But in its eloquent and affectionate telling of the impact of war in one man’s life, the obituary resonated widely. It was shared across social media, bringing hundreds of emails to Paul’s inbox from others who had lost something to war and prompting a story in the Forum News Service, a North Dakota news wire, about “the decorated war veteran who could never return to normalcy after the war ended.”
“I tried to be clear and I tried to be honest…….. Bill was a damaged man, but the war in Vietnam pulled the trigger that caused the wound. There is no other way to say it than that.”Paul Ebeltoft
In a phone interview Wednesday, Paul said he had been stunned by the reaction. A retired lawyer now living in New York, he worried the obituary lacked detail and depth and considered not sending it to the funeral home until his wife read it and insisted. He devoted hours to writing about the older brother he loved, hoping to capture “the real person” in a way that traditional obituaries often do not.
It was important to him not to shy away from the havoc Vietnam had wreaked. He worried that the lessons of the past might be lost – that America continues sending its youths off to endless combat without an exit strategy, even after those who fought in Vietnam “suffered so much because of politicians who never knew them.”
“He just couldn’t come to the realization that he needed to live life with this burden and make wings for himself rather than make it an anchor……. He just couldn’t come to that realization. He slipped away young…….. It is not possible to wrap your arms around a loved one who leaves. But it is possible to wrap your heart around a memory. Bill’s will be well taken care of.”Paul Ebeltoft