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Tampa Bay veteran to be featured during National Memorial Day Concert has story of loss, hope



EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times



TEMPLE TERRACE — Larry Michaelis hadn't worn a suit in 30 years, not since his second wedding.

But there he was Thursday afternoon in his empty upstairs apartment, zipping the new houndstooth jacket the volunteers bought him into a garment bag, packing the new lace-up shoes into his old suitcase.

Getting ready to fly to Washington, D.C.

Michaelis hasn't been to Washington since 1971, when he was a young Marine. That time, he and hundreds of other troops had been sent to quell protests near the Washington Monument. Holding back activists who spat at him and called him "Baby Killer," he said, was worse than being shot at in Vietnam.

"It's weird, going back there," Michaelis said. "I mean, I'm grateful for everything and all. But why did they pick me?"

He looked up from his packing, stared out the window. "I hope they don't make me speak," he said. "I hope I don't cry."

• • •

Friday morning, Michaelis, 62, flew out of Tampa International Airport with a woman from Volunteers of America-Florida and three people from PBS.

On Sunday, he will be honored at PBS's 23rd annual National Memorial Day Concert, on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Colin Powell will be there, along with Natalie Cole, the National Symphony Orchestra and dozens of other entertainers.

Emmy Award-winning actor Dennis Franz of NYPD Blue, also a Vietnam veteran, will share Michaelis' story — a story of service, suffering, homelessness and, finally, hope.

"I can't believe they got Dennis Franz to be me," Michaelis said, shaking his head. "This shouldn't be about me."

Michaelis is being recognized as a representative of a startling demographic: 67,000 homeless vets, half of whom served in Vietnam.

He wasn't the worst injured or most decorated hero of that war. He didn't save more lives than others. He is every G.I. Joe who did his duty — whether he believed in the war or not. Who made it through hell and came home, only to be harassed, then forgotten.

Except Michaelis can never forget.

• • •

Michaelis, who grew up in Queens, N.Y., enlisted in the Marines in spring of 1967, at 17. He asked his girlfriend, Maureen, to marry him when he got back from the war. When he shipped out, he tucked her photo into his wallet.

He landed in Vietnam just after the start of the siege of Khe Sanh — one of the war's longest and deadliest battles.

"There were all these explosions, rockets as big around as dinner plates, 600 rounds fired at us every day," Michaelis said.

He remembers firing at a water buffalo charging toward him. He can still feel the icy hand of a man whose face had been blown off, who clutched Michaelis' arm and asked, "Did I make it?"

Michaelis cared only that he made it.

"You can't get scared. You can't let yourself feel joy or sorrow, anything except anger. You have to just become this animal so you can survive."

• • •

Maureen noticed he was different when he came back, but never asked what had happened. Michaelis never talked about it. But during his dreams, he would scream.

He spent two more years in the Marines, serving in Cuba and trying to control rioting peace protesters in D.C. He was promoted to corporal, then sergeant. He and Maureen had two sons, moved to Florida, and divorced.

"I wasn't there for them," Michaelis said. "I'd wake up in a rage, be in a rage all day, I had no idea why."

Another marriage, this time to a waitress at a Port Richey diner. Two daughters, this time, plus a stepson. He did some survey work, ran a drywall business.

He stopped sleeping, started drinking, then stopped. He didn't like feeling out of control. "I was scared of what I might do. All this violence in my head, I didn't want to hurt someone."

His second marriage lasted 20 years, ending five years ago. When the economy tanked and he couldn't get work, he tried suicide, but his daughter found him after he took the pills and called an ambulance. He spent five days in the Bay Pines psychiatric ward, then found that his doublewide had been foreclosed, the locks changed.

Everything he owned was inside, and he had nowhere to go. He was 57 years old.

• • •

He slept in his Chevy Silverado, on a park bench in Port Richey, on his stepson's futon in Key West. Eventually he got a job at Home Depot and a $35-a-week bunk in a homeless shelter.

"A guy there told me I should go to the VA. The first time I talked to a psychiatrist, I started bawling like a little girl," Michaelis said. "Instantly, he said, 'You're suffering from PTSD.' I had no idea what that was."

He got medication and a referral to the Volunteers of America-Florida, who sent him into a VA therapy program in Miami with 20 other vets.

Therapists made them talk about their trauma. After 40 years of living with the images in his mind, Michaelis spoke about the pile of logs that turned out to be bodies. About the 15-year-old girl who had been gutted, her empty torso tossed in the road.

"The idea was to desensitize us," Michaelis said. "But if you do get desensitized to something like that, what does that say about you?"

Still, he felt better. Two years ago, he moved to Temple Terrace and reached out to his kids. "So much time lost," he said. "I'm still trying to figure out how to get home."

He is retired now, living on Social Security and his veterans' pension. Most everything in his $710-a-month apartment is beige: carpet, walls, counters. He has some plastic lawn chairs but no end tables, coffee table, dining room table or chairs.

The only decorations are photos of his daughters and a framed snapshot of his granddaughter, who is 10. "She wants to come stay with me," he said, smiling for the first time all day. "I guess I need to get some furniture."

• • •

Volunteers of America-Florida has arranged for Michaelis to see the White House and the Smithsonian this weekend.

"He's such a sweet man, such a success story," said Janet Stringfellow, chief administrator of the group.

Michaelis hopes no one wants him to see the Vietnam Memorial. He couldn't handle that.

But more than anything else, he said, he hopes there won't be any protesters shouting at soldiers. "Politicians are the ones who start wars," he said. "Soldiers just fight them."

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8825. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

Watch the concert

The annual National Memorial Day Concert will air at 8 p.m. Sunday on PBS.

Tampa Bay veteran to be featured during National Memorial Day Concert has story of loss, hope 05/26/12 [Last modified: Saturday, May 26, 2012 2:18am]

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