Lois Braunheim and the Effects of War on the American Family Unit
Profilers: Kai Moore, Jamie Gallo, Claire Hyatt, Isabelle Nguyen
Good morning. My name is Lois Braunheim. For twenty-four years, I was married to Ralph Hyatt who was a Marine and who spent several tours in Vietnam and actually was awarded medals for his valor there. He was considered one of the finest Marines of his time. And so, Claire’s asked me to share some stories with all of you, and it’s my pleasure to do so.
Q: How did your husband come to join the military?
He actually joined the military when he was seventeen years old. His mother had to sign for him. It was the Korean War at that point, and he wanted to be a part of it for his country.
Q: How old was he when he first deployed?
Seventeen, right away.
Q: What did your husband’s military career look like?
Wonderful at times and horrendously awful at other times. I did not know him for the Korean War, but I knew him the whole time he served in the Vietnam War. And candidly, they were awful times leading to him actually becoming an alcoholic. That’s how bad those times were.
Q: What were your opinions on the Vietnam War when it began?
It wasn’t until Johnson became president that it really escalated. I always thought it was a useless war. I saw no reason for it whatsoever. It broke my heart that so many of our young kids were being killed. For what? But as a military wife, obviously, I could not express my opinions about that, so while I didn’t support the war, I certainly supported him.
Q: Did your sentiments about the war match your husband’s feelings?
No, he felt that your country asked you to do something, there was a reason for it, and therefore you did it and you did not ask as a military man, you didn’t ask any questions.
Q: Can you elaborate about your husband’s motivation for joining the service?
He was a man who had really adored his country, and was a true patriot. And he felt that if all these people were going off to war, then he needed to do it also. And that really was the sole reason he joined the military. So, what your country was asking you to do and as a patriot, he did it.
Reflecting on the course of the war
Q: Talk to me about the day-to-day life of you and your husband throughout his enlistment.
It was tough. During Vietnam when Johnson escalated the war, marines were deployed sometimes every other year. And when he came home and told some of the stories that happened, I would literally cry, even though I didn’t know any of these young men who had been killed. Ralph was on what they called a search and destroy mission one day and the Viet Cong would float down the river with rods in their mouths so they could breathe. And one of them came out of the river and shot at Ralph and his troops, killed a 17-year-old boy. His stomach was totally open, and he died in Ralph’s arms crying for his mother. The stories of horror are indescribable as to what happened to these young men, which certainly didn’t help my view. The Vietnam War needed to stop. One of his times at home from Vietnam he was assigned the job of telling families their sons had been killed. So for a year, that was his job. He went out with the chaplain. Horror stories of a father having a heart attack when Ralph told his son had been killed, of a very religious family throwing the American flag at Ralph because they didn’t want their son to join. In that year, he went from having brown hair to being totally gray. It was a horrible assignment for anybody to have to do.
Q: Describe some of the harder parts of experiencing war that you or your husband went through.
And when he was overseas, every time there was a knock on the door or the doorbell rang, you never knew if it was going to be a Marine and a chaplain to tell you your husband had been killed. So, door or door knocks were not pleasant for us because we didn’t know otherwise, because we didn’t know what was on the other side of the door. Marines are very good to families. Very, very good. There is nothing they won’t do for us. So, I felt a lot of support when he was gone, if I needed it. He had two children. I remember your father seeing Life magazine with a picture of a dead Marine on the cover and your father becoming absolutely hysterical because you couldn’t see the face of the Marine. You could just tell he was dead. But families had to deal with these articles in magazines and newspapers where children saw as well, and had an incredible impact on their ability to survive this whole experience.
Q: Did you agree with the way that the propaganda was shaping the war in Vietnam?
No, you have to remember that in order for President Johnson under the direction of General Westmoreland to continue sending more and more troops, the propaganda as to what would happen if we lost the war was horrible. We are saving all of these people in South Vietnam. In the meantime, they’re getting burned to death. They’re being killed by explosives. And guess what? We lost the war.
Q: How did your opinion on the war shift or change over the course of the war?
It never changed. I thought it was the most useless, senseless thing we could do.
Q: Can you describe the dynamic of the household during the Vietnam War?
The dynamic of the household, when he was away, was quite calm. We lived a very normal life. When he would come home and he may be home for a year or two years before he went back, there was incredible stress that came home with him. And you could feel the stress, you could feel the tension. Very explosive reaction to things that, before he ever went to Vietnam, would never have been so explosive. But he carried with him all these horrible things he had seen before. So, let’s say you’ve got a splinter in your hand and you complained about it. He would explode and give his stories about I just held a young man whose stomach was pouring out of his body and you’re complaining about a splinter. The household became very, very tense and he knew he had to go back. So, that didn’t make it any easier. I’ll tell you that there was a sense of relief. And, this is a horrible thing to say. When he actually had to leave because we could breathe a sigh of relief that things could return to almost normal.
Q: Did you carry guilt for feeling that way?
No, not a minute. No.
Q: How did you come to house widows of American soldiers?
It was very interesting because a lot of the families, the widows, had been here with their husbands before they went to Vietnam. And then if the husband was killed in Vietnam, these were families from the Midwest or Deep South, and they had nowhere to go. So, we would take them in until arrangements could be made by the Marine Corps to get them back and all of their things to wherever they lived. We also did something that I consider one of the best things I’ve ever done. We lived in Sacramento. There was a naval hospital in San Francisco, and we requested that 12 sailors who were hospitalized with multiple amputations be allowed to come to our home where we would entertain them for a weekend, and they were allowed to come. These were men who lost either an arm and leg or in one case, they lost an arm and both legs. As I prepared for them to come, I went to a local hotel and told them that I was bringing these Navy amputees to our home. And I wanted to pay for all of these rooms because they came with doctors and nurses, and the hotel would not let me pay for anything. I will tell you a hysterical story. As I was preparing for them to arrive, there was a knock on my front door and there was a quite lovely woman, probably in her fifties. She was asking me if I would like to have a prostitute for each of the boys while they were here. She was actually a madam. I thought it was a brilliant idea. I got nothing we did would be as great for these guys as her sending these women. But some of the wives were insulted by it and said they wouldn’t help me prepare if I allowed them. And I said, well, thank you, but I am allowing them. So, if you don’t want to help, that’s fine also. As it turns out, there was a dance held for the guys and these prostitutes came and for the guys in wheelchairs, they just jiggle the wheelchairs. I remember dancing with a man who lost an arm and a leg, and he had a prosthetic leg. And I stepped on it and said, “I am so sorry.” And he said, “Don’t worry about it. I have another one back at the hotel.” Their attitudes were unbelievable. Unbelievable.
Q: Did they express their sentiments to you about the war?
I kept up with some of them for several years, actually. I had never heard one, not one say he wouldn’t do it again. A lot of them wanted to go back with their prosthetics on. They, of course, couldn’t. But no, I never heard one complaint about it.
Q: Was that shocking to you?
I wanted at least one to say this is a useless war, to make my feelings about it…but no.
Reflecting on the downfall of her marriage
Q: What was your husband like when he came home?
Very tense, very. For example, we went out for dinner on Chinese New Year’s and they set off a bunch of firecrackers. And you could tell every Marine that was in the restaurant because they came out of their seats explosively because to them, they were being shot. He was very, very difficult to live with after those tours in Vietnam. It was as though he was trying to reconcile him being there in this useless war. And yet if he wasn’t there, who was going to take care of these boys? Who was going to be their good leader?
Q: Did he ever express to you that he felt it was a useless war?
Never. I didn’t think that would be possible. I don’t think that you can serve that and see these young kids dying and being killed and you were their leader and then say it was a useless war. No, I never heard him say that.
Q: Can you elaborate on the changes you saw in your husband when he returned home?
He was there for that last six months when they evacuated and came home. He was, by then, an alcoholic. He drank constantly. He had a very explosive reaction to the most common things, very difficult to be around because you never knew what was really going to set him off. And I tried to understand on the basis of what he has been through. But candidly, his treatment of his sons, if they missed a ball while playing baseball or didn’t do right in football, it was just an explosive reaction. Something to the effect of I had young men die who would love to be here. And look what you just did. You drop that book. It was just insane. So eventually the marriage ended, and I will attribute that to the war.
Q: In what ways did Vietnam in particular cause these changes?
You see such dreadful things. You hear shots going off and you don’t know that’s going to hit you or it hits the guy right next to you. They have to repress so, so much and they did not believe in psychotherapy. No, only weak men go for psychotherapy. So, there really wasn’t any way of getting all of this pent-up stuff out. You’re stuck with it and it changed him completely.
Q: Are there any conversations that you had with him about these changes that stick out to you or you remember?
I do remember on several occasions after an abnormal reaction, trying to talk about it. And his reaction was, “When you’ve seen what I seen, you probably will react the same way.” And I can’t deny that. That might very well have been true.
Q: You had children during the war. What would your response have been if one of them told you they wanted to enlist in the military?
I would move them. And I told Ralph and I told my whole family we would be moving to Canada. That’s how opposed I was to the Vietnam War. I would not allow one of my children. If I had any say in it, no.
Q: Would Ralph have wanted your sons to?
Of course, yes.
Q: How old were your sons when the marriage ended?
Both in college, so twenty and twenty-one.
Q: Did they ever express any desire to enlist?
Q: Do you think that was hard for Ralph?
I never heard him express it. He would have been very happy if one of his sons had followed in his footsteps, but he never expressed it.
Reflecting on the peace movement and life after the war
Q: The Vietnam War launched what may have been the largest peace movement ever in the United States. As the spouse of a soldier, but also as someone against the war, what was your perspective on the movement?
I loved it. I absolutely loved it. Now, as a military wife, had I participated in any kind of peace march, Ralph would have had to pay the price. He would have been reprimanded. I would have been called in to the commanding officers office, so we weren’t allowed to participate in anything that was going on. I could share it privately, but we couldn’t participate.
Q: Did other wives on the base feel the same way as you?
Some wives did, but the majority of wives did not. I’m going to assume that if you married a military man, you believe, as he believes, in whatever the United States was asking you to do. You were very, very careful about what you said. You didn’t want it to get back to whoever was the commanding officer. “Oh, Mrs. Hyatt is bad mouthing the Marine Corps for participating”. Now, you just hinted at your feelings and saw if you’ve got a reaction to them and what that reaction was.
Q: How did you find support during the war?
I lived off base in a community that had very few military people. I started an organization to raise funds for sports activities. There wasn’t enough money to buy equipment or clothes. So, I got involved in my local community and got a tremendous amount of support. And in that community, I still didn’t talk about my opposition to the war because you were very careful about what you said.
Q: What was it like for your husband to return to civilian society?
He retired after 25 years, and I really feel he was a lost soul. His identity was being a Marine and a very proud Marine who was one of the only Marines ever to get the Congressional Medal of Freedom when he was at the National Security Agency in Maryland. So, for him no longer to have that identity was very, very hard. And that promoted the end of the marriage truly.
Q: The men who fought in Vietnam returned home and obviously received a pretty hostile welcome. How did this affect your husband?
We didn’t have it in our community because we were fifteen miles from a military base. Our community was very used to military people being around and being very supportive.
Q: And his friend shared with us that he was sharing Vietnam stories on his death bed the morning he died.
He was a Marine until he died. Once a Marine, always a Marine.
Q: How did he feel about the way that the media have portrayed the war?
There were times when the media was very, very supportive until the real horrible escalation of the war when they sent five hundred thousand troops over there. Then, he felt that the media had an obligation to support what their country was asking of their men.
Reflecting on the repercussions of the American war in Vietnam today
Q: What do you wish you had known before the war began?
Before the war, I would never have married him.
Q: You have witnessed the first hand consequences of war. What is one piece of advice that you would give our generation about the war?
We’ve never known how to successfully, in all aspects, sit down with opposing forces, talk it through, and see what we could do to solve it without killing each other. I would love to think that before I leave this earth, I’d like to see that in just one situation. Why can’t we sit with people in Afghanistan and work it out so that no more deaths on either side? Or why can’t we sit with Iranians and Iraqis and work it through?
Q: Would you have considered yourself an anti-war person prior to Vietnam or did Vietnam shift your feelings on war?
Korea shifted my feelings on war. It was another useless war. The thing that caused that shift during the Korean War was seeing my first amputee and I was a nurse. And that’s where I saw my first amputee. And I thought, “Whoa, whoa, what are we doing there? Why are we really there?” And there is no answer for that.
Q: Did your husband reach out for any kind of support when he returned from war?
No. Strong men don’t do that in his mind. The Marines I knew that he would have at our home were the same patriotic men that he was. So, if it affected them, they would never let it show. Their wives would complain about their behavior, particularly because so many of them became alcoholics and would stop at a bar at night instead of going home or worse off. And when you’re married to war and you’re surrounded by all these patriots and you can’t speak your mind, it’s tough.
Q: And how did you feel for your young son seeing their dad?
It was pretty awful. It was one of the reasons I left because he could be brutal. They knew it. When I divorced him, my youngest son sent him a letter of divorce, writing all of the things that he felt his father had done to them. They didn’t have a father. They didn’t have a father to guide them.
Q: How do you feel like the Vietnam War was responsible for those changes? Do you think he would have been a different father if it were not for Vietnam?
Obviously, I would have no way of knowing that, but I have to believe that he probably wouldn’t have been so explosive. Maybe wouldn’t have become an alcoholic, not so brutal, not expectations for his children being unrealistic.
Q: Do you wish you had had the opportunity to speak out more during Vietnam?
I think I should have spoken up more. Yes, I do.
Q: Any final thoughts you have on what you experienced?
If you ever have a chance to march in a peace march, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or Asian Lives Matter or anti-war? Do it. Anything we can do to prevent any more wars, if you have a chance to do something, do it.