Lasting memory


When John Curry Jr. died in January, family members collected pictures of him and mounted them on two sheets of black posterboard.

His wife, Linda Curry, has kept these memorials intact for the past four months, and on Monday she displayed them in her living room for a visitor. John is in every picture, often sporting a mane of auburn hair and matching beard.

After several minutes of examining the photographs, Linda ducked into a cabinet and retrieved a drugstore photo-lab envelope stuffed with more images. She sorted through them briefly before finding the one she wanted.

It was a snapshot of a man sitting at a table, the sagging skin of his face speckled with red blotches and his eyes runny. He is balding, and what is left of his hair is gray and cut short.

It would be safe to guess the guy in the picture was 70 years old, maybe even close to 80.

But he is only 56.

The photo was taken not long before John died, about 10 years and a lifetime after most of the pictures of the once-robust man were shot.

John served in the Army during the Vietnam War. Drafted not long after graduating from South Philadelphia High School, the young man from Seventh and Carpenter spent most of 1966 and 1967 trekking through jungles in Southeast Asia, battling the Viet Cong.

He returned to his South Philly neighborhood confused, psychologically shaken and about to face three decades of unusual health problems.

On April 21, Patriots Day — a holiday that pays tribute to the Revolutionary War — John received overdue acknowledgment for his years of suffering. He was among 400 men honored in Washington, D.C., during the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s "In Memory" ceremony. The event was held adjacent to the walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

For the last five years, the "In Memory" ceremony has recognized veterans who are not eligible to have their names etched in the wall. They are soldiers who died after their active service due to non-combat war injuries — many from Agent Orange exposure and emotional disorders related to post-traumatic stress disorder.

President Clinton signed legislation in 2000 authorizing the installation of a marker recognizing veterans who died of war-related causes. The American Battle Monuments Commission has plans for a monument near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and funds are still being raised for the project.

Like numerous other vets, John suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, says Linda, who lives in the couple’s home on the 2500 block of South 18th Street. He had been receiving full disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs since 1989. Linda submitted John’s name to be recognized during the "In Memory" ceremony shortly after his death, when friends and family informed her such a tribute existed.

She says John "never seemed settled" when he came home from the war, and even until his death became edgy when he heard a helicopter overhead.

He shared few stories about his experiences in Vietnam, Linda says. She learned much of what she knows about her husband’s tour of duty from an unpublished book he wrote titled Playgrounds to Battlegrounds.

The vet had tried to leave it all behind, both literally and figuratively. John departed Vietnam with nothing except the clothes on his back and his discharge papers, but he never escaped his memories, Linda says.

"He did not want any memory, but he couldn’t do that," she says. "It just didn’t work."

Linda also believes John was exposed to Agent Orange and blames the toxic herbicide for a series of unusual ailments that afflicted him.

The U.S. military sprayed Agent Orange to defoliate the dense jungle terrain and expose the enemy. Between 1965-71, the government dumped 20 million gallons across 6 million acres of Vietnam, including four military zones.

In 1978, the VA set up the Agent Orange Registry health examination program for Vietnam veterans concerned about the effects of the exposure. By the 1990s, the government had formed a lengthy list of diseases "associated" with the herbicide, including numerous cancers, Type II diabetes and birth defects of veterans’ children.

And diseases continue to be linked to Agent Orange. On Jan. 23 — the day before John died — the VA announced that researchers had determined the herbicide did in fact cause chronic lymphocytic leukemia in some veterans, which spurred the government to grant additional benefits to those with the disease.

John Curry had a litany of physical problems in addition to dealing with his emotional trauma.

He and Linda met shortly after John returned from the war. John, nicknamed "Johnny Reds," had enrolled in classes at Community College of Philadelphia and Temple University with plans to become a writer.

He first saw Linda at a Bible study at what formerly was the South Philadelphia Christian Fellowship, 10th and Kimball streets. John had come to the meeting because he was researching a story, Linda says.

She remembers the brown leather jacket he was wearing and his bushy red hair. She loved redheads.

The couple raised two children together: Valerie, now 37, whom Linda had before she met John; and Amber, now 20. The couple had three granddaughters. John fondly called all of them "his girls," Linda says.

During the 1970s, John began to show signs of illness. First, he experienced numbness in his hands and shooting pains in his face. Doctors tried to eliminate the pain by pulling some of John’s teeth, Linda says.

Both problems persisted.

"He had a really high pain tolerance," and rarely let on how much pain he was actually feeling, Linda recalls.

In 1981, John’s facial pain worsened and his physician recommended he undergo brain surgery to sever the nerve causing the discomfort. The operation was successful, but the result impaired his hearing and numbed the left side of his face.

John’s doctor also tested him for exposure to dioxin, one of the chemicals in Agent Orange blamed for a range of health problems. The results showed John’s body had been polluted by a dioxin level greater than 98 percent of the population, Linda says.

In subsequent years, doctors diagnosed John with multiple sclerosis, chronic pancreatitis and liver disease. Months prior to his death, John experienced memory problems and other ailments believed to be caused by post-traumatic stress disorder, Linda says.

John died at Pennsylvania Hospital after being in a coma for 10 days following surgery that was required when he accidentally tore out his catheter. Linda visited him every day, talked to him and put headphones on him so he could listen to music.

"That’s as peaceful as I saw him in years," she says.