Longform

A System Gone Mad

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The Ellisons learned of Donald's fate shortly after he left Vietnam. "They told my mom Donald was shell-shocked," recalls his sister, Alice Jackson. "They didn't give specifics, other than he had been through too much combat."

Donald seemed to improve at the San Francisco hospital. By late 1967, doctors said he was well enough to return to active duty, stateside.

His so-called recovery would be short-lived.

Unraveled
While stationed at El Paso's Fort Bliss in 1968, Donald Ellison forever lost his tenuous grip on reality.

Military police that January took Donald to a mental hospital after he began making threats. One MP recalled him repeating, "I am confused, but I must regroup. I must."

"Patient became very anxious and upset tonight," a nurse wrote on January 27, 1968. "Paced ward. Talking loudly and at times almost constantly--was hearing and ducking from machine guns and seeing people throwing grenades at him. Appeared frightened and angry. . . . Saw a cobra in his bed."

"War is different from peace," he told a shrink. "You just don't understand. You have to make the best of it. . . . I may not have been the best soldier in 'Nam, but at least I was a good one."

In May 1968, the Army granted Donald an honorable discharge. The Veterans' Administration awarded him a 70 percent disability for service-connected disabilities--"a severe schizophrenic reaction, paranoid type." His disability compensation would jump to 100 percent a few years later.

Donald returned to Gila Bend. The Army gave him prescriptions for antipsychotic pills and the address of the Phoenix VA hospital.

"My mom got her son back from Vietnam," says Mary Howard, "but she didn't get the same son. We got him back in his darkest hour--and we got what we got."

Mary Howard, 12 years Donald's junior, was a young girl at the time. But she recalls his return vividly and chillingly:

"He'd just set in the La-Z-Boy and stare, watch the windows with a shotgun on his lap. He wouldn't talk about the war, and I'd be wondering what was going on in his mind. I saw so much confusion in his eyes. I don't think I ever saw him cry. It was hell."

Donald did discuss some of his war experiences with another sister.
"He was all locked up into what he went through in Vietnam," recalls Alice Jackson, two years younger than Donald. "He'd talk about not trusting anyone there because people wanted to get him. Even children were dangerous because they could be all boobied up. He said he had to watch his back and his front at the same time."

Donald often refused to take his pills, preferring alcohol and illegal drugs. He couldn't hold a job. And he started to have run-ins with the law.

Months after Donald returned to Gila Bend, police arrested him on a disorderly conduct charge, his first of dozens of similar arrests over the next quarter-century.

"He'd walk around town in a daze most of the time," recalls Joe Diaz. "He'd just stare or be in people's faces just like that. 'Nam must have been hell on that dude."

Into the Darkness
A discouraging pattern had developed by the early 1970s: Donald would get arrested for something and end up in a mental hospital.

There, he'd be heavily medicated, "stabilized," then discharged with orders that he take his pills and try to behave.

Donald often tried to turn his life around.
In 1976, he lived alone in a Phoenix apartment and found work as a gardener at Brophy College Prep. He was well-liked, and his employers encouraged him to seek his GED.

He earned it, then lost his job because of chronic tardiness.
He took to pacing the streets for hours, often stopping to drink at seedy bars. Donald had few friends, mostly because he was wildly unpredictable. One minute, he'd confront someone over a perceived slight; the next, he'd laugh and walk away.

In the late '70s, Donald moved to Southern California, where most of his siblings had migrated. The change of scenery did no good.

"He claims that nothing goes right for him," a doctor there noted in July 1977, "that he was fired from his job. He has been drinking quite a bit and so he sought help in the hospital. It is doubtful if this patient will ever be able to hold onto a job."

Donald moved to L.A.'s Skid Row. In 1979, his VA disability checks--his sole source of income--stopped coming to his post office box. Donald phoned the Veterans' Administration and was told to put his complaint in writing.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin