By the middle of 1966, Thomas Hutchinson had been flying jets off of an aircraft carrier for almost a year. For the twenty-nine-year-old Navy Lieutenant, it seemed like no two missions over Vietnam were ever the same. Each one had its own special form of risk, but this one had been particularly difficult from the beginning and now it had become a matter of life and death.
Staring into the brilliant sunlight, Tom watched with a grim realization of what was about to happen as a surface to air missile rose from the ground and began to track his A-4 Skyhawk. He knew with absolute certainty that his life was about to change in the worst possible way.
Although his heart rate increased dramatically, his thinking remained clear as he tried every evasive maneuver he could – but it was futile. The missile was locked on. In desperation, he made one final hard dive, but still, the weapon continued to zero in on him.
The experienced pilot had no choice but to accept his fate. Within seconds the missile struck the tail of his plane and threw him into an unrecoverable flat spin. Relying on his training, he did everything necessary to eject from his aircraft, and with a violent blast, he was catapulted free from his dying jet. The force of the ejection broke Tom’s collarbone and left him dazed and struggling to breathe. Within a few moments his chute opened in the strangely silent blue sky, and he began to drift down to a clearing in the jungle where the Vietcong quickly gathered together, eagerly waiting for the opportunity to capture him alive.
An American pilot was the ultimate prize.
After spending seven brutal years as a prisoner of war in a crude camp just outside of Hanoi, Tom was finally allowed to go home to the country he had been so proud to serve. During his imprisonment, he was repeatedly abused and tortured. He suffered six broken ribs, a punctured lung, a broken left wrist, and a severe concussion that left him with impaired vision, all the result from the regular beatings that he was forced to endure. He was also tied up for days on end which resulted in severe nerve damage to both legs. For the rest of his life, he was forced to walk with a cane to maintain his balance, however, it did nothing to ease the ever-present pain.
But the most dangerous infirmity he faced during his captivity was pneumonia. Through the years he experienced reoccurring bouts, each case worse than the one before. Just a month before his release he nearly succumbed to a particularly virulent strain of streptococcus, lingering near death for several days before finally rallying.
But through all of the pain and misery, he displayed unwavering courage. At no time during his 2,613 days of imprisonment did he sell out his country or his fellow POWs. He was a man of honor. Although he experienced the indignities of war at the hands of his captors, he still managed to somehow maintain his own dignity as a human being. No matter what the enemy did to him, he did not break, even though by the end of his incarceration he had lost more than 60 pounds.
His bravery would eventually lead to medals, awards, and citations, but all of that paled in comparison to the sheer exhilaration of freedom.
After years of tremendous mental and physical suffering, Tom could hardly believe it when the release of all-American prisoners was finally secured. However, upon returning home, he was shocked by the way the United States had changed. People had grown weary of the war. No matter which side of the debate a person had been on, no one wanted to continue thinking about this tragic chapter in American history. It seemed like everyone just wanted to forget that it happened – but Tom would never be able to do that.
1974 – 2017
A year after returning home, Tom married Karen Baines. Although easily the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, she was far more than just physically attractive. He had never met such a wonderful caring person, and he felt blessed to have in his life. Her patience and understanding of what the war had done to him made her the perfect partner.
They settled down and eventually he opened a successful business. The only thing that was missing in their lives were children. Tom and Karen both wanted to start a family, but they were never able to conceive.
To friends and acquaintances, their marriage seemed normal enough, but that was because they didn’t know about the nightmares that haunted Karen’s husband. Throughout their decades together, Tom rarely spoke about his time in Vietnam, but the anguish he endured from his dreams was clear evidence of the psychological trauma that never left him.
However, the vast majority of people Tom knew in civilian life were not aware of his wartime experiences, and that was the way he wanted it. He preferred to be treated like everyone else. He had no desire to be singled out for attention.
Through the years he and Karen did their best to enjoy their lives. Although he found great comfort with his wife, the war had a way of drawing him back. During those dark periods, Karen learned to back off and let him work his way through it. Occasionally she would gently suggest that he might try some kind of counseling, but he always refused. Tom was convinced that no one could understand unless they had lived through it themselves.
When they reached their mid-sixties, Tom sold his business and they retired, happy to be together and living comfortably.
But, after an additional fifteen years, the lives they shared came to a heartbreaking end. Karen was diagnosed with leukemia and died after a brief battle with her cancer.
Tom was devastated by her death and struggled to go on. Seven months after losing his wife, he had a massive stroke that left him weak and unable to communicate. Although still mentally sharp at eighty-one, his body began to fail him and he could no longer walk even short distances without assistance. He spent his days in a wheelchair staring out the window at Karen’s beloved flowerbeds while his mind remained trapped in a body that could no longer withstand the abusive years of imprisonment and the ravages of the intracerebral hemorrhage. With his weight down to 125 pounds, his vision failing, a loss of mobility and lacking the use of his arms and hands, something had to be done quickly.
Believing he had no alternative, Tom’s younger brother, and only living relative, decided to place him in a VA nursing home where he hoped he would receive the attention he needed. Although he had the best of intentions, just as other families do when they make the same difficult choice, it would turn out to be the biggest mistake of his life.
It was just a few days after being placed in his new “home” that Tom first came face to face with Regina Dawson, a person who was charged with his care but who was tragically incapable of caring about anyone but herself.
The VA nursing home had many dedicated and compassionate employees – but Regina was not one of them. To say that she hated her job as a nursing assistant was a grotesque understatement. She despised everything about it. She didn’t like taking orders from superiors who she believed didn’t understand how disgusting her job could be, and she couldn’t stand the helplessness of the patients who depended on her for their welfare and comfort.
Unfortunately, staff turnover was high, so her immediate supervisors were willing to tolerate Regina’s belligerent attitude in order to make their own jobs easier. Even when her behavior crossed the line, they tended to look the other way which only emboldened her.
Her chief complaint, among many, was that she believed she had too many people to take care of. That is why when Tom Hutchinson was added to her responsibilities, she became furious. He was particularly irritating to her because of his inability to communicate and the fact that she frequently had to lift him into and out of bed.
To Regina, this man was not a human being worth the effort. People like him were nothing more than a burden that made her life miserable. As best she could tell, he spent every waking moment laying immobile, staring at the ceiling making incomprehensible sounds.
However, it was having to feed him that she found most disgusting. Tom had tremendous difficulty swallowing, but she insisted on forcing him to eat as fast as possible just to get it over with. This resulted in gagging and frequent choking incidents.
Regina’s dehumanizing treatment of the man she referred to as a “worthless cripple” grew steadily. Although his toileting needs were taken care of by the male staff, she was still forced to waste enough of her precious time on him that she detested his existence and couldn’t wait to be rid of him.
What she did not understand was that Tom’s mind comprehended everything that happened around him, including her contempt, neglect, and cruelty.
He knew when it was time for her shift, and he dreaded hearing her heavy footsteps coming down the hall. That sound meant he was about to endure the worst kind of file verbal abuse. He often thought if her superiors could only hear the obscenities she directed at him she would immediately be fired. But Regina was careful. She knew exactly when she could get away with her deplorable behavior and when she had to toe the line.
Besides, there was no way he could communicate what was happening. That made punishing Thomas Hutchinson one of the few pleasures she found in her job.
But it was impossible for Tom to understand why he was being treated this way. He had done nothing wrong. The former pilot would give anything to change his degrading circumstances, but he was trapped, and that meant that he was completely at the mercy of this individual. Unfortunately, mercy was a quality that Regina refused to offer.
As the months went by, the nursing assistant became more brazen in her abuse. Late one afternoon while forcefully feeding Tom, who could not begin to chew and swallow as fast as she demanded, he began to choke violently which caused him to spit a mouthful of food on her. It only took an instant for her to lose control. Filled with rage, Regina slapped him hard on the face twice, splitting open his upper lip. Unable to raise his arms to protect himself, he sat mute and defenseless as a stream of blood ran down his chin.
She looked down at the large stain on her uniform. Raw fury coursed through her as she grabbed his hair, yanked his head back and spit in his face.
“How do you like it when someone spits on you?” Still seething, she roughly grabbed his arms and yanked him on to his side.
Tom didn’t understand what was happening. He tried to cry out for help, but the sounds he made did not convey his fear.
Regina, realizing that she needed an explanation for his injury, lifted him off the bed and dropped him on the floor. Tom felt a stabbing pain in his left hip. He struggled to sit upright, but he didn’t have the strength.
After taking a few moments to collect herself, the aid calmly reached over and pushed the call button. When Tom heard her lie and request help because a resident had fallen and hit his face on the nightstand, he knew there was no hope.
Although his lip needed stitches, he didn’t get them. It was quickly determined that he was not worth the time or expense. However, the agony he showed when he was lifted back onto the bed prompted a single attempt to contact a physician to authorize an x-ray on his hip. But when the doctor did not respond, any chance for treatment evaporated. The only consideration that was given to Tom’s injury was that from that day forward he was always placed on his right side. Having any weight on his left hip was unbearable.
Later that night, in the stillness of the dark, Tom felt ashamed. Once a proud and respected Navy pilot, he had become convinced by the constant abuse of his caretaker that he was worthless and undeserving of human compassion.
As he thought about his impossible situation, from which he knew he could not escape, Tom’s blurry vision faded completely as tears of humiliation burned his eyes. He realized that, incredibly, he was once again a prisoner. But this time, even more than in Vietnam, he was not confident of his survival.
THE FINAL DAYS
Time crawled by with a numbing slowness, each day exactly as the one before. Tom tried, but he could not keep track of the twenty-four-hour cycle so he was not certain how much time had passed since he had been thrown to the floor. How many weeks had it been? All he knew for sure was that the discomfort in his left hip had not let up, and now an even more intense pain was piercing his right hip. Along with an unrelenting burning sensation, the wound sometimes felt like it was seeping. Based on what he’d experienced in the prison camp, he feared he had developed a large bedsore that was becoming infected.
As Tom’s discomfort increased so did Regina’s abuse. She verbally berated him with almost every breath and showed no concern for his physical pain. Handling him just as roughly as she always had, she mocked him when his agony showed. And when she lost her patience, which happened with increasing frequency, the nursing assistant continued to yank him by the hair and slap his face, just hard enough not to leave a mark.
As always, meals continued to be the biggest issue, but slowly Tom lost his appetite. Before too long even the thought of food made his stomach turn. Of course, that was fine with Regina. The less time she had to put up with his coughing and gagging the better.
Tom began to feel worse by the day as his mental and physical faculties declined. The pain in his right hip had become so excruciating he didn’t know how much longer he could stand it. However, all of his attempts to communicate were ignored. Without assistance, it was impossible to get into any kind of comfortable position but even though the staff was aware of the dying flesh, no one lifted a finger to help him.
A few more weeks passed and one afternoon he heard Regina coming down the hall, but at this point, Tom was too sick to care. He was feverish and his blood pressure had dropped to dangerous levels. Both were easy symptoms to check – if only someone would.
Regina entered his room and immediately recoiled in revulsion. Without realizing it, Tom had lost control of his bladder, and he’d been laying in urine for more than an hour. The huge festering sore on his right hip had been soaking in his body’s waste, and the stench was overwhelming. Regina could no longer tolerate the sight of him.
Tom cringed as his caretaker came at him and began to shout her usual obscenities. As her anger escalated, she began slapping him repeatedly. As always, Tom was defenseless. He silently absorbed her blows, too weak to show a reaction.
Finally, after venting her rage, Regina grabbed him by the hair and put her face down against his. The smell of his breath made her want to gag, but she forced herself to tell him the truth. “Listen carefully to me. You have huge bedsore, and that has led to sepsis. That’s an infection in your blood. I’ve just been biding my time till I was rid of you. But laying in your own filth is just going to speed up the process. You better get ready to die because it won’t be long now. You have done me a huge favor.”
She took her hands off of Tom and stalked out of the room, leaving him lying helpless in the large wet stain.
With his face stinging from his tormentor’s abuse, he could not help feeling overwhelmed by his hatred for the woman who had made his life intolerable. But no matter how he felt about her, he knew she was right. As a POW, he had seen firsthand how an unchecked infection could quickly kill a man – especially someone whose health was already compromised.
Hours later, as he desperately fought against the pain that now racked his entire body, his thoughts began to wander. Hazy images of the camp slowly drifted into his mind. He did his best to remember the faces of the men he had been imprisoned with more than five decades before, but as he’d gotten sicker, it had become increasingly difficult to see them. He tried to focus specifically on the ones who didn’t make it out alive, but he realized the past was dimming for a final time. Although he knew he was at the end, he still felt blessed to have been given so many extra years when so many others died horrific deaths at the hands of the enemy.
He thought about his dear Karen and how much he loved her. If only they were still together none of this would be happening. He had always hoped that he would die first so he wouldn’t be forced to live without her, but now even her face – the face that meant more to him than anything else in the world – was starting to fade in his delirium, and it broke his heart.
As his breathing became more labored, Tom was still lucid enough to know that it was now his turn to die. He had witnessed the end of life many times in Vietnam. There came a point when a man could go no further, and when he had nothing more to give, the will to live ebbed away. Tom could feel that happening to him. He wanted to struggle on, but he was exhausted. His organs were shutting down, and his mental fortitude, which had always been his strongest asset, had now deteriorated. He knew his journey was finished. He could only hope that all of the pain would soon be over.
Within an hour that hope became reality. When his ravaged body finally gave up, Tom slipped into unconsciousness and found eternal relief from the room that had become his second prison. His heart continued beating for several more minutes and then the man who had willingly risked his life for the nation he loved, died in squalor and shame.
Although he courageously survived the savageness of war, Tom died like too many other veterans. In the end, he was not surrounded by family and friends. Not a single person shed a tear. No one held his hand or told him that he was loved. In his last conscious moments, he was fully aware that no one cared.
But no matter what the circumstances of his death, he was a hero – a hero whose emaciated body stared one final time at the ceiling as the color drained from his face and his lips turned the ghastly blue that is a familiar sight in nursing homes where too many people die alone and forgotten.
It was forty-five minutes later when Regina entered the room. She glanced over at the bed and instantly realized she was looking at a corpse. To say she felt nothing would not be true. After a few moments, her face broke into a wide smile. At last, she thought, this waste of a human being was gone.
Of course, she knew there would be the usual investigation into the cause of death, but she and her coworkers were adept at altering the facts in a way that benefited them. Through the years they’d had plenty of practice.
Without even bothering to close her patient’s eyes, Regina turned and strolled happily out of the room, knowing that her job had just gotten one person easier.