The Story of Joe

By Russ Layne

Our weekly peace vigil at the intersection of Routes 9 and 9D in Wappingers Falls began in typical fashion recently. As some of us had been doing for the last seven years – I for the last two – we gathered at noon, posted our peace signs, recounted our frustrations regarding United States foreign policy, and reveled in Senator Bernie Sanders’ eight-hour filibuster to end tax cuts for the super rich.

We are a small group, nine regulars. Sometimes we’re joined by students from the nearby Culinary Institute of America and Vassar College, and by many other committed people drawn to Wappingers Falls by the chance to commune with Pete Seeger, who participates in our two-hour vigil when his schedule allows.

On this particular Saturday, we had just one visitor, a tall distinguished-looking stranger. He said his name was Joe. He appeared to be in his 60s. He said he was married and a dad. He told us he had often driven past our peace-watch and honked his horn in support. Today, however, he felt compelled to drop by in person for a while. He wanted to thank us for our efforts.

Joe said he had a story to tell, and listening to it brought me to the brink of tears. But it wasn’t just me. Some other members were similarly touched.

He said he was dying.

He said he was a Vietnam War veteran who, over the course of several decades, has been battling lymphatic cancer he contracted from his exposure to Agent Orange during the war. For years he had been in and out of the most challenging treatments, but this debilitating condition was finally catching up to him. His condition is severe. He said he’s lucky to have a supportive family at home.

As we stood in the chill, we were subjected to the angry epithets and belligerent gestures we occasionally receive from passersby. Still, our time there with Joe had a profound impact on us. He said there are innumerable ex-servicemen who share his medical condition. Many, he said, share his frustration and anger over the occasionally shoddy medical attention they get from the government, and over their general dismay with many of our nation’s foreign and domestic policies.

Joe said he had been cautioned by his oncologist to reduce the stress in his life but thought it was important to stand with us in Wappingers Falls. So he did, and his brief visit brought home the terrible pain and suffering shared by all parties in war.

Joe was with us just that one Saturday.

I think about him a lot. I hope he’s all right.

Russ can be reached at


8 Responses to “The Story of Joe”

  1. Jo Galante Cicale Says:

    Profound! My husband also is an AO vet and he has serious medical conditions. AO vets have shorter life spans than the general public. And, my husband, too, is opposed to war. He was heartbroken that we hadn’t learned from Vietnam that you don’t go into war just because.

  2. Anita Page Says:

    A very moving piece, Russ. As a nation we delude ourselves that Vietnam is “over,” forgetting the thousands that suffer the repercussions of that war for their whole lives.

  3. Mary Makofske Says:

    Thanks, Russ, and thanks to Joe for being willing to share his experience. I wonder how it is for the many veterans opposed to war who hear it celebrated. Supporting the troops means honoring their experience and insight, not using them for propoganda.

  4. Russ Layne Says:


    My heart goes out to your husband and your family. As an old 60’s war protester, I tended to stereotype GI’s, especially those participating in unpopular wars, as villains. Folks like Joe and your husband have helped me keep in perspective what it means to practice humanism.

  5. Russ Layne Says:


    Thank you for that observation. I’m just reading a story in this months NEW YORK magazine about the extraordinarily high rate of suicide among our returning soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq. The repercussions from war are unimaginable.


  6. Russ Layne Says:

    Hello, Mary,

    Thank you for your comments. The double jeopardy of suffering through war as a soldier, having a catharsis about its merits, then questioning our government’s actions upon one’s return only to be chastised by passersby as I observe regularly— some of the participants in our weekly vigil are, indeed, combat veterans— takes amazing strength.

  7. LeeAgain Says:

    Russ, this piece brought back a memory. It was during the Sixties and I was a student at SUNY New Paltz. German was not my bag, but I was studying it, nonetheless. And I had failed German 2, somehow, even though by my calculations, I’d squeaked through. I sat in the prof’s office, asking why? Why? I knew I was passing. She gave me a sad look. The grades she gave were reviewed, she said. And I’ll never forget her next words: “And girls don’t get sent to VietNam.” So she was saving her passing grades for the boys! I fumed in frustration. I had passed! It wasn’t fair! That was my 20-year-old brain’s reaction.
    Fast forward a few years. I was a social worker making a visit at Middletown State Hospital in a psych ward. At the end of a long corridor, a young man with a cane walked slowly toward me. An amazing coincidence! The fellow had been my classmate in college. He nodded in recognition and then, with great difficulty, formed the words. “I got sent to ‘Nam. I’m here….for a….a rest.”
    Over the intervening years I haven’t had much occasion to use my fractured German. I managed to graduate without the credits for that course that, on paper, I flunked. I learned a better lesson. And today that professor is my hero.

  8. Russ Layne Says:


    Heavy! What a poignant story. I’m beginning to think that there may very well be a myriad of experiences such as yours which are rarely if ever told. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

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