Not every soldier who is lost falls on a distant battlefield. Some come home, alive and seemingly sound, only to later succumb, a casualty to hidden wounds.
With Memorial Day tomorrow, I thought of this pair of stories. Though more than 20 years have passed, I still remember clearly the day the first one was printed, because I did something that I'd never done before: I took my telephone, which would not stop ringing, and put it in my desk drawer and closed the drawer. I had already used it, for a difficult conversation with a bereaved mother, and needed to write the second column.
Pvt. McLynn Craig made it back from Vietnam, but the Chicago streets did him in. Now his body lies unclaimed, waiting for somebody to help him home to his final rest.
Craig, 48, a former Marine, was found dead under a stairwell on the West Side in the middle of December. Cause of death: pneumonia.
Since being recovered, Craig's body has been at the Cook County medical examiner's office.
"He was very nice, an educated young man," said Reatha M. Holder, a social worker at the Veterans Affairs West Side Medical Center, who tried to encourage Craig to enter programs and get off the street.
"But he was too proud to seek help," she said. "Others from the lounge tried to get him to seek help from the VA, because he was eligible."
"The lounge" is Carol's Lounge, a tavern at 3858 W. Madison, where Craig used to work as a handyman.
"We all knew him, but we didn't know much about him," said Quentin Black, the manager at the bar. "He came from the South—he has ties with people down there. He was in the Marines. He served two tours in Vietnam. He worked maintenance on a flight crew. He was a bright man, kind of worldly for his young life."
Black said that Craig used to sleep in the bar for a while.
"But he took to the streets. Everything he owned was on his back," said Black. "He was proud."
Holder has tried to locate his family. His mother, Lena Mae Craig, is thought to live in Montgomery, Ala. He has children in Chicago—two sons and a daughter, who is blind. But nobody seems to know their names or where to find them.
The medical examiner's office was going to release Craig's body to be buried in a pauper's grave at the potter's field in Homewood. But Holder intervened, hoping someone would come forward and claim him.
"He was helpful to everybody," she said. "I just couldn't understand how he could let himself become a homeless veteran."
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 9, 1998
"They were neighbors of ours here in West Chatham—a fine family, a wonderful young man," said Grethyal Gooch, 63, who read about Craig in Friday's Sun-Times. "I was stunned. I called his mother. She was very distraught. They'd never been able to find him."
Lena Mae Craig said her son took to the streets for reasons she didn't understand.
"That was just something he wanted to do," she said from her home in Gadsden, Ala. "He was evidently dealt a bad something. I don't know. He's been like this for three years, sleeping and staying in taverns and doing work for food."
She said Craig, who was 48 and served two tours in the Marines and then one in the Navy, could have come home anytime to the people who loved him.
"He has a blind son, 25 years old. I just told him (the news)," Craig said. "He loved his father to death. He has a sweet daughter, in Rock Falls. She's going down to ID his body at the morgue. He has two sweet children that love him and a mother and two sisters and a brother."
Her only indication of what might have kept her son from seeking help was his bitterness toward the government.
"He said the government was rotten and he didn't want anything to do with it," Craig said. "He didn't want any help, didn't want to go into the hospital."
She said her son did not live in the streets because of any mental problems. "He was too smart in the head for that. He was in the Marines," she said. "The Marines are not dumb people."
Nor do they neglect their own. Throughout the day Friday, Marines -- active, retired and reserve, as individuals and as representatives of groups such as VietNow -- called the newspaper offering burial help.
But it seems that Craig will be shipped home for burial in Alabama.
"I want him shipped here," his mother said. "I want him here."
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 10, 1998