Wounded Vietnam veteran steps into painting that hung over his bed

Louisville, KY

Army veteran Johnny Brooks was drafted only three weeks after his 20th birthday, three weeks after marrying his high school sweetheart, Flora.

In 1969, Johnny had been in Vietnam for less than three months when his whole company came under attack, Flora said. He was shot in the back and both legs in Vietnam. One leg was amputated in Japan, another in San Francisco. The blood loss would lead to a cardiac respiratory arrest a month after the attack, causing brain damage.

He returned home to Stockton, Calif., where Flora would take care of him for over 40 years.

"We knew he could understand things, knew who we were - me, his mom and dad," Flora said. "He could open and close his hand, for instance, but couldn't hold a pencil to write."

Because the wounds on his back were so severe, Johnny was unable to stay sitting in a wheelchair for very long. They set up a hospital bed for him in their living room, Flora's bed beside. Being in bed so long can cause the body to deteriorate, Flora said, "but he was one strong guy ... he was just a miracle guy."

Flora would craft at a card table by Johnny's bed. She said she tried a little bit of everything - macrame, crochet and finally landed on quilting. It became a calling.

In the early 1990s, a friend called her to tell her about a painting. It was of an older couple touching a name on the Vietnam Memorial Wall, a wreath in the corner, the Wall mirroring not the couple's reflection, but two soldiers carrying a wounded soldier.

"At the time we didn't have much money, so I bought the print, but I didn't buy a frame," Flora said. She framed it herself and hung it above Johnny's bed.

The artist, Wes Kendall, a Vietnam vet himself, had wanted to paint something substantial about the aftermath of the war - how veterans' families and friends were affected, how they ached - for years.

"It affects not only the soldier," Kendall said. "It affects your families and your friends and everybody forever. And not just in Vietnam. It’s still going on today. This is something we kind of forget. And I did, too."

He had accumulated sketches (a mother leaning over a casket with a flag on it, letter in hand) and ideas, but none were quite right.

Kendall had served as an artist in Vietnam, drawing up propaganda that was air-dropped.

"We called ourselves the litter bugs of South Vietnam," he said.

Years after his service, the idea for the painting finally struck once the Wall was dedicated.

"I thought here’s my picture, here’s my backdrop, here’s where I start from."

Using his dad and aunt as models for an older couple and an intern at the Louisville, Ky.-newspaper where Kendall worked as the model for the wounded soldier, he began to work seriously.

He told his friends, fellow Vietnam vets, who he met regularly after work for beer, about the project. He was going to make up names and put them in the painting. They insisted he couldn't: The names must be real.

Kendall would have to go to Washington, D.C., to collect them. He'd have to stare at the Wall.

"I really didn't want to go to Washington because I thought this would be a real emotional thing. I just didn't want to deal with it," he said. But he went and took photos of one section, 16W, capturing the names line by line by line. He selected 16W because his friend's name, Conrad Jack "Jackie" Wheeler, was there.

The painting itself was technically ambitious, maybe the most difficult Kendall had ever attempted, he said.

"But the hardest part was the names, just getting all those. At one point I got so frustrated at night I threw it out of my studio in my front yard," he said. "Several times I quit. I just thought, 'It’s too much. I can’t do this.' But it seemed like along the way it kind of had some outside influence, you know. And I was able to get it done."

He titled the artwork "A Touching Moment."

Johnny passed away in 2011 at age 62; Flora saw to it his name was added to the Wall in 2012. When she returned home after the ceremony, for some reason the painting that hung above Johnny’s bed caught her eye.

She looked at it carefully: 16W. An unusual name, Harvey Dudley, Jr., stood out.

"I ran and got my pictures from the trip, and Johnny’s name on 16W is right under Harvey Dudley, Jr."

Johnny had, in some very real way, entered the painting that still hangs above his bed.

"The painting’s still on the wall in the same place. I keep all of Johnny’s stuff up," she said. "That painting has surely touched a lot of veterans."

She searched for the artist on the Internet, found Kendall’s e-mail and wrote to him.

"Not that I needed confirmation from God, but that’s what I felt like it was," Flora said. "I mean, what are the chances that that painting could be so special to us, and then Johnny’s name to be on it? It’s like God saying, 'You’ve always been in the palm of my hand.' ... It was kind of a confirmation that none of this was an accident."

About a month later, Flora said, she received a big package in the mail. It was from Kendall — another print of the painting, this one though had a significant revision. Johnny’s name was inked in.

"I'm kind of a crusty old guy that’s not too emotional, but this one - this one really got me," Kendall said. "What (Johnny) had experienced was what I was trying to say in the painting."

"I think it touched (Kendall’s) heart, too, that it meant a lot to another Vietnam vet," Flora said.

Though Kendall called Flora a "saint," she said caring for Johnny after he came home from the war doesn’t show a heightened sense of responsibility on her part, but rather the outcome of true love.

"I can honestly say there was never a day that I said, 'Should I stay with Johnny or should I leave?' It was me clinging to him. ... To me it was pure joy being with Johnny."

Now that she’s unable to quilt for Johnny, she actively participates in Quilts of Honor, which gives quilts to active military and vets.

"Life is still a big blessing," she said.

« Previous story
Next story »