When he came back to the reservation here on the western banks of Lake Okeechobee, Charlie Gopher didn't want to talk about what he had seen in Vietnam. He wrestled the drop-zone demons alone, mostly, and tried to find sanity in empty bottles.
His close family knew that war had altered him, but the Seminole soldier, who returned with no medals and no walking papers from the U.S. Army, never betrayed how.
When he hanged himself in 1974, at age 30, he left behind a mystery that took his family nearly four decades to solve.
• • •
Rita Gopher McCabe, 40 now, always wondered what happened to her father. She wasn't yet 2 when he died, too young to have even a whisper of a memory.
She had overheard what the old men said about him, how they wondered whether he should even be recognized at the tribe's Veterans Day ceremonies. She heard how her grandfather, John Henry Gopher, had applied for burial benefits, and how the government had denied that request. She remembered what her grandmother, Maude, said years ago, that maybe someday Charlie's daughters would find out what happened and clear his name. Some of Charlie's siblings wanted to leave the past buried.
Rita didn't know what his military records said, nor did she know how to find them, but she couldn't shake the questions.
Then, about 10 years ago, a white man came to the reservation. He was a Vietnam veteran from California. He was asking if anyone knew where he could find Charlie Gopher. He wanted to say thanks.
• • •
Mike McCoy served with Gopher in 1966 and '67. McCoy told Gopher's family stories of great heroism and bravery. He told them that Gopher, an M60 gunner, was fearless in combat, that he was a natural tracker, that he moved silently through the jungle.
He told them of an ambush at Kim Son Valley in which a grenade exploded next to Gopher's foxhole. His buddies thought Gopher was dead, but five minutes later, Gopher popped up, bleeding from the nose and ears and firing his machine gun. McCoy said Gopher stopped the North Vietnamese from slaughtering the entire unit.
Energized by McCoy's stories, Rita began looking for help from someone who knew the system. Two years ago, she found Marc McCabe, a Veterans Affairs officer who counsels old soldiers at Brighton. McCabe (no relation to Rita) is the kind of guy who, if he can't reach someone by phone, gets on an airplane.
Rita told him what she knew about her father.
The stories gripped McCabe. He began requesting information and spent some 1,000 hours in the next two years trying to piece together a dead man's record.
He learned Gopher had been given an other-than-honorable discharge, which explained why the government denied his family veterans burial benefits. But the reason for the downgraded discharge didn't make sense.
Gopher had been promoted through the Army ranks and spent much of his time as a team leader on the front lines. Other veterans stepped forward with stories that confirmed his bravery and heroics.
"He was in some of the fiercest battles the U.S. military has ever been a part of," said McCabe. "Charlie was a proud warrior."
Gopher returned to fighting two days after the concussion at Kim Son, but he wasn't the same. He re-enlisted several months later without leaving Vietnam. But he soon began wandering away from his post. Once, he left his unit in Vietnam and, according to his family and other Seminoles, found his way back to Brighton. He stayed for a while, then went back on his own to Vietnam and rejoined his unit.
"That's what I've heard," said his daughter, Rita. "He made it all the way back to Brighton, then went back."
McCabe is confident that Gopher was dealing with issues we now associate with post-traumatic stress disorder. Back then it was called battle fatigue or shell shock.
He walked away several times after that, but each time he came back and rejoined his unit and was sent back to battle.
In June of 1970, the records show, his commanding officer told Gopher he was discharged. He went straight back to Brighton and never bothered to collect his discharge papers, or his medals. He went to work on a ranch and quietly tried to hide his pain from his parents and new wife, Louise.
The government tracked him down in 1974 and hauled Gopher to jail. His ranch supervisor accused the Army of harassment.
Two months later, Charlie Gopher was dead.
• • •
On Nov. 1, at the Florida Seminole Veterans Center, vets from the tribe and elsewhere filled the seats and stared up at a photo of Gopher projected on a large screen and talked about his childhood on the reservation. He left competitors in the dust during the 100-yard dash at Field Day. He was catcher during baseball games but never wore a mask. Kids ran from him on the football field. He baked a cake from scratch one night just for the hell of it.
"This guy was fearless," said Mitchell Cypress, an Army vet. "I admired Charlie Gopher."
James Billie, chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, remembered walking into a flooded tent in the dark in Vietnam and hearing a voice that sounded familiar.
"Gopher?" Billie said.
"Who wants to know?" said the voice.
"James Billie," Billie said.
"That's Sgt. Gopher to you," Gopher answered.
Gopher's family sat in the first row, his widow Louise and daughters Rita and Carla.
Marc McCabe described his work for the past two years, how he learned of Charlie Gopher's valor and mistreatment, how he had run into a brick wall in trying to get the government to change Gopher's discharge status. How stories about Gopher in the Seminole Tribune and pressure from politicians helped turn the tide.
"We were able to have the VA overturn their decision," McCabe said. "They took out the word 'dishonorable.' "
Gopher's family walked to the stage, where McCabe presented them with a shadowbox containing his medals: the Combat Infantry Badge, two Air Medals with a V, the Parachutist Badge with three Overseas Bars, the Vietnam Service Medal with five Bronze Stars, the Vietnam Campaign Medal, the National Defense Service Medal and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm Leaves. His regiments also won three U.S. Army Presidential Unit Citations, the Vietnam Civil Action Honor Medal and the Valorous Unit Award for Operation Fish Hook.
His family was proud. After the short ceremony, they ate steak and fry bread not far from a bronze statue of Osceola.
Rita Gopher McCabe smiled. One little word. Thirty-eight years after his death, a Seminole soldier's legacy had been changed.
"In the history books, he won't be labeled as dishonorable," she said. "He's honorable now."
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650. Follow him on Twitter: @gangrey.