Obituary for Vietnam vet who 'lived three lives' moves North Dakotans
BISMARCK — Most readers of Bill Ebeltoft's obituary never knew the man as he lived, but they probably wish they had.
The Dickinson native who once fought valiantly in the Vietnam War, died Sunday, Dec. 15, at the Veterans Home in Columbia Falls, Mont. He was 73 years old.
The obituary written by the veteran's younger brother, Paul, has gone viral in North Dakota. Originally published in The Dickinson Press, the tribute recounts the story of the decorated veteran who could never return to normalcy after the war ended.
It's a narrative all too common for those returning home with the mental wounds of war forever weighing them down. The first line of Bill's obituary states, " 'Not everyone who lost his life in Vietnam died there.' The saying is true for CW2 William C. Ebeltoft."
And yet, it would be far too simple to wholly label Bill's life after the war as tragic. The obituary describes the joys Bill knew and the people who cared for him despite his damaged state. Still, Paul can't help but wonder how his brother's life would have turned out were it not for his time at war.
"I would like to have had the chance to see what he could've done without the trigger of Vietnam in his life," Paul said Tuesday. "It would have been good."
'A very well-liked, very flawed guy'
Growing up in Dickinson, Bill had a natural talent for sports, hunting and making friends quickly. He had never done well with formal education, but it wasn't for a lack of wits, as evidenced by his ability to count cards "as well as anyone you'd see in the movies."
Paul thinks the military would have been a good place for Bill had it not been for his traumatizing experiences in Vietnam. Their father served in World War II and spoke of his military career with fondness. Bill latched on to his father's stories of wartime adventure and voluntarily joined the U.S. Army at 21. Two years later he was deployed to Vietnam, where he logged over 1,000 flight hours in a helicopter and received multiple medals and decorations for his bravery in battle, his brother said.
Bill battled alcoholism his entire adult life, but Vietnam exacerbated his addiction as he began drinking to dull the reality around him, Paul said. He seldom spoke of the horrors he saw in war, but to Paul, it's clear he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Loud bangs disturbed him, and he slept with guns handy.
Paul said Bill was "a cheerful consumer of alcohol" and never a mean drunk. He was great dancer and a self-taught piano player. He loved people and had friends of all ages, including neighborhood kids who would gather around as he fixed motorcycles and cleaned shotguns at his Dickinson home.
For a time after the war, Bill worked as a salesman at The Fad, a Dickinson retail clothing store owned by his father. Paul said he has received emails after the obituary's publication from ranchers who lived in southwest North Dakota and used to stop in the store just to visit Bill.
But the addiction caught up to him. Bill developed Korsakoff syndrome, a memory disorder that usually results from chronic alcohol consumption. His mind remained in the years before and during the war most of the time.
Bill moved into the Veterans Home in 1994 at age 48 after his cognitive disability and addiction became too much. The staff came to regard him as family, social worker Dawn Lyga said.
He told off-color jokes he had picked up during the war and cruised the hallways singing old Western tunes as loud as he could manage. He frequently sat down at the piano and played songs he had taught himself. "Waltzing Matilda" was his favorite.
Paul said a nurse once told Bill she had been feeling homesick for her native Kentucky. As she left Bill's room, he began singing "My Old Kentucky Home," and the nurse broke down with emotion. Even though he was rarely in the moment mentally, Bill was compassionate in that way, said Bonnie Savage, the home's event coordinator.
Pictures of his family and the helicopter he flew in the war hung on the walls of Bill's room. The staff even managed to get him a poster and other pieces of memorabilia from his adored Schlitz Brewing Co. He often repeated the company's famous tagline, "When you're out of Schlitz, you're out of beer."
Bill's physical health took a turn for the worse about a year ago, and he clearly didn't get the same enjoyment out of his daily life, Savage said. However, Lyga insists he could still play piano a few days before his death.
Bill became an elder statesman during his nearly 26 years at the home, and staff members say they will truly miss his eccentric presence. Lyga still hasn't cleared out his belongings.
"We have to clean his room, and I've put it off for two days," Lyga said. "Even though he's gone, it's hard because there are so many memories (left) behind."
A private service through Stevenson Funeral Home and Crematory in Dickinson will be held in the spring. The family encourages donations to Stark County Veterans Memorial Association at P.O. Box 929, Dickinson ND 58602.