Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

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“That damn war,” my mother wailed between sobs. My brother,Steve, died on the streets of Fargo, North Dakota nearly 30 years to the day he enlisted into the Army and went to Vietnam. He left us only with questions about our failure to help him and why our mother was never notified of his death. Steve’s story mirrors those of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. No Immediate Threat doesn’t just tell the story of one American veteran, it tells the story of many.

Comments - No Immediate Threat

Prologue - No Immediate Threat

December 25, 1972

I had just turned 9, and Cat Stevens had released the album “Teaser and the Firecat” the year before. My older brother, Steve, loved Cat Stevens and for a little girl who adored her big brother, that was good enough for me. Although he was 11 years my senior, we were very close. He returned from a tour in Vietnam that year.

I was too young to understand the politics behind “Peace Train,” but I liked the song that talked about a train on the edge of darkness.

Besides, the album cover had a cool cartoon cat that was also appealing to my young consciousness. I asked Santa to bring me a cassette player and the tape. It wouldn’t be until a couple of years later that I realized those presents from Santa actually came from my brother, who delighted in the fact I was learning about his brand of rock and roll. I played the song over and over on Christmas day.

 

I understood that Steve was in a war, and I realized the danger. The year before, my brother wrote from Vietnam and asked my parents to get me a dog as a present from him for Christmas. I named him Chu Lai, for the base where my brother was stationed. Chu Lai the dog was a black longhaired dachshund mix. He grew to be about 10 pounds.

 

Of course, I studied the map in my encyclopedia and finding Chu Lai the base, I imagined what it was like.

 

For two years, we watched the war on the news every night. I saw boys no older than my brother running through jungles and shooting guns and I wondered if I would catch a glimpse of Steve.

 

Then there were the flag-draped coffins.

 

After the news was over, when I said my prayers, I always asked God to bring my brother home. I knew my mother prayed for this too. Sometimes we prayed together and sometimes, when the worry overwhelmed her, I caught her sitting alone in the living room. Except for the glow of her cigarette, darkness surrounded her until a car turned the corner to go up our street.  The momentary flash of headlights through the picture window revealed my mother’s heartache. I crawled into the rocking chair with her. Having had my little world bumped off its axis at seeing my mother, my protector, the center of my universe waver, I said, “Don’t cry, Mommy.”

 

 “It’s OK,” my mother replied, reassuring me that everything would be all right by holding me tight and kissing my hair. “I just miss your brother.”

 

When he finally came home, I asked Steve questions any child would ask about guns and how many people he killed, not really understanding what that meant. He only told me he shot “very big guns,” but wouldn’t answer my question about the killing. He didn’t like talking about the war, and I finally stopped asking. We were all just glad our prayers had been answered.

January 26, 2001

My mother’s 90-pound frame shrunk at the news. There was nowhere to go. This time, there was no darkness to hide our grief. She was sitting in a chair and collapsed in a heap on her kitchen table. “That damn war,” she wailed between sobs. Her worst fears were realized. She lost her son.

 

This time, it was me who held her. I stroked her hair as she had stroked mine when I was a child. Her thin frame suddenly felt so small. Only now, I didn’t tell her not to cry.

 

I carried the news I had learned that morning with me all day. I knew I had to tell her that her only son, my brother Steve, was dead. He had stayed with my nephew in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in the summer and fall of 1999, but later left for Fargo, North Dakota to find work. Three Christmases had passed since my mom and I talked to Steve on the phone in November of that year.

 

He was an intelligent and informed person who liked to spar with us over politics, so we knew by the time the disputed 2000 Presidential election rolled around, and we hadn’t heard from him, that something was terribly wrong.  In January, I finally found the courage I needed to start trying to learn what happened to my brother. It took me two calls to find out what we already suspected. The first one was to the Veteran’s Administration, who couldn’t help, but suggested I call the Social Security Administration to see if there was any activity on his social security number.

 

“I’m sorry,” a disembodied male voice told me. “Steven C. Fivecoat was reported deceased on November 21, 1999.”

 

And so the war finally ended for him, nearly 30 years to the day after he enlisted into the Army. We thought our prayers were answered in 1972 when Steve walked off the plane, instead of being carried in a flag draped casket. But for the veterans - the people we citizens hail as heroes - wars don’t end for them until they’re gone. And for the mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, nieces, nephews, cousins and friends, the last shot fired in a war does not necessarily mean “Mission Accomplished.” Although Steve had battled mental illness and addiction since his return from the war, it wasn’t until that night that we fully understood our prayers were never really answered.

February 2, 2001

“There’s my baby boy,” my mother said, as she took the framed photo of Steve as a toddler from my hands. I spent the better part of the morning rummaging through one of her three cedar chests that contained a lifetime of memories. I found what I was looking for, validation that Steve, my brother, was once a happy, normal child with promise of a future. The photo would grace the church altar at his memorial service the next day.

 

After I handed the photo to Mom, I traced the outline of baby Steve and our young father in another photo. I cried at having lost them both. I felt a deep sense of loss for my dad and brother, but I couldn’t fully grasp how Mom felt, having lost both her husband and her only son within a span of less than 20 years. But at that moment, I came to the realization, as we all do at some point, that our parents weren’t always the people we came to know. They too were once young and full of hope, for themselves and for their children.

 

I looked at a family photo taken of our parents, Betty and Frank Fivecoat, Steve and our two older sisters, Linda and Janet, just days before I was born. As usual, Steve was laughing, obviously having a good time during the family portrait sitting. Dad told him to straighten up so they could take a decent shot.

 

What did our parents dream for all of us, for him, the moment that photograph was snapped? Whatever it was, I know neither of them could ever imagine that Steve’s life would end as it did.

 

I handed another framed portrait I found for the memorial to my mother. It depicted a happy, smiling, brown-eyed boy wearing a western shirt embroidered with a cowboy and a lasso. On his head sat a cowboy hat that was the staple for every red blooded 1950s era American boy. The studio headshot didn’t show it, but a pair of well-worn cowboy boots completed Steve’s outfit. Although my parents could coax him out of the boots that had to be set on the porch to be aired out each night due to the stench from continuous wear, he refused to give up the hat, even when he went to bed. “Hopalong Cassidy” was his favorite television show and the cowboy hat stayed with him until it finally frayed.

 

His beaming expression in the photo stared at me through Mom’s folded arms. It was a stark contrast to the torment on her face, which had remained fixed since the day I told her Steve was gone. She sat now in her rocking chair, staring at the ground, holding the photo to her chest as though the gleaming boy were on her lap and she were back in time 48 years.

 

She is still a mother who so desperately wants to protect her son; even knowing now it is too late, I thought.

 

I sat with her in silence for a long time, until we both felt the weary effects of the past few days. She didn’t want me to stay the night with her. She told me she wanted to be alone, alone with her son.

“To me, he’ll always be my little boy. I loved him ever much as a man as I did when he was a child. I will always love him and be proud of him,” Mom said as I left her house.

  

In the aftermath of his memorial service held 14 months after his death, we were left only with questions. Questions about how such a promising young life went so terribly wrong. Questions about our failure to help him. Questions surrounded his disappearance and why, although he was holding a plethora of information in his pocket when his body was discovered, that his mother, who was his next of kin, was not notified of his death.

 

The new “war on terror” began just nine months after we learned of Steve’s death. The next several years have reminded us of the long-term effects of war on veterans and their families. For our family, whose military service to this country can be traced back to Mad Anthony Wayne in the Revolutionary War, the question regarding Iraq became “Are the reasons just enough for any person to go through what Steve did, to go through what our family went through? Is it really worth another veteran falling through the cracks?”

 



Comments on
"No Immediate Threat"

Date: 29 Nov 2005

I grew up with Steve. I even remember when you were born. Steve and I went thru school together and hung out together. We were the 2 smallest kids in our class and were in the same Cub Scout pack and held our meeting in my basement. The 2 Den mothers were my mom and the lady across the street. I used to spend the night at your house and he and I would watch Gregory Grave's Chiller show. Email me and I will share some good stories with you. I will see if my dad has pictures from the Boy. He was Scoutmaster and took a lot of them. Maybe we could get together and share some memories.

My sister mailed the obituary from the paper after it was published and I was stunned to say the least. The sadness brought back a lot of great memories of growing up in a Leave It To beaver world.

Tom Winegar


Date: 28 Oct 2005

It is a good read. Once I started I didn't want to stop but had to for obvious reasons like work. You tell Steve's story very well, honestly and paint a vivid picture of life in the 60's Viet Nam and on thru till his death. War is so contrary to what we are brought up to believe that it's no wonder our military turn to alcohol or drugs to numb themselves from the pain and memories. Far too many have lived Steve's life and will continue with the current war in Iraq. Our services to help need to be on a grander scale, the government cannot look the other way. There are many things in life which are too big for anyone to handle on their own and your book shows quite well how deep the abuse can be. I hope as others read it they become more aware of this and do more for any service member and family but most of all those who really need help get the help they need. Being aware empowers people. I feel I have learned so much more thru your book and will not forget it. It is sad to say that we expect our military personnel to be ready to serve, give up everything and when the worst of the worst happens they are left to go it alone. If Steve could convey anything to you I think it would be that he is very proud of his sister who told his story to the world and that he can rest in peace knowing she and her family loved him very much. Your book did bring tears to my eyes and I feel the sadness of his life and knowing that there are so many others out there having gone thru or are/will. It is not an easy road to travel nor is it easy to know he is one of several hundred thousand.

Barb Vatza


Date: 25 Oct 2005

Having finished "No Immediate Threat", I find myself contemplating on what I did not know prior reading it. This book does a number of things for its readers. It tells the story of a Vietnam veteran and his family, all that they went through and how they felt at each turn. It shows the human side of a war that has been ignored for far too long. It gives us a glimpse of the trauma that Vietnam veterans experienced and carried with them throughout their lives. Many of these vets are still alive today, trying to cope, trying to understand a war that made no sense. This book opens eyes and touches hearts. It pulls one out of their comfort zone and shows what such a trauma can cause in the mind and soul of a veteran who survived the war but not the after shock.


Date: 19 Oct 2005

To the veteran who suffers . . .to the families who suffer as well . . . this book frameworks the struggle!  And, for the skeptic, it challenges the prejudice associated with mental disorders resulting from combat and combat-related trauma.  I have never read anything from "cover-to-cover" in my life, until today!  Your brother and I shared baseball, scouting, a fear of ghosts, problems with relationships, wanderlust, and alcoholism!  And, we shared the feelings of inadequacy and guilt.  For him, Ft. Lewis was a blessing . . . I flew back into the center of the maelstrom . . . Los Angeles and all the "Flower Children!"  Talk about a life-changing event on top of another life-changing event!  WOW!!!!   Thank you for writing this book!  It honors the life and times of your brother, Steve, and your entire family!  It also serves as a center point for the entire combat veteran community!  Your work continues the hope for a better tomorrow!  Can you smell the cigarette smoke . . . ???   God Bless You, Kerri . . . .

Marv Sandbek, U.S. Air Force, Retired

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