( May 29, 2014 )
Steve Hancock: Vietnam Vet, Avid Runner, Haunted By VietnamBy Lori Riley, firstname.lastname@example.org | Hartford Courant
Michelle Hancock remembers her father sitting in the dark in the living room listening to Billy Joel's ode to the Vietnam war, "Goodnight Saigon," as the sound of the helicopter rotors thrashed through the speakers and filled the room. Steve Hancock would listen to the song over and over.
You didn't go into the living room then. You just left him alone.
She and her brother Steve also remember teasing their father about the flies — he was obsessed with killing them and was really good at it. One day he said to them, a bit defensively, do you want to know why? And all of a sudden, it wasn't funny anymore.
In Vietnam, Steve Hancock told his children, the flies were big and fierce and hurt when they bit you. So you learned to kill flies. Among other things. Things that made up part of the darkness that lay in a corner of Steve Hancock's soul after serving in the Marine Corps in Vietnam from 1967 through 1969.
Most of the time, Hancock, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2006 at age 58, hid those terrible memories well. He met his wife, Brenda, in 1971 and they were married in 1974. He worked for Electric Boat for 30 years. He was a member of the VFW. He loved the Red Sox. He was a hard-core runner who ran a number of marathons, including the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.
He was a singer and the founding father of the "Plaiders," the runners who wear crazy plaid sports jackets and sing "Only You" (by the original Platters) and became a tradition at the Manchester Road Race. He was quick with a smile or a laugh, loved his friends and family and loved to have a good time. Even after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2004, he remained upbeat about the fatal disease.
And he was patriotic. He and his friends ran with the American and POW-MIA flags at the Four on the Fourth road race every July 4 in Chester. His favorite song was not "Only You," but the "Star-Spangled Banner," which he sang at road races and events at Electric Boat and even in the shower.
But there was another side that only his closest friends who spent time in Vietnam knew about. Michelle, his son Steve and Brenda didn't know much about his tour in Vietnam. They knew he was a Marine, that he had big scars on his back and one on his stomach after being shot twice. That he was awarded two Purple Hearts, which are enshrined with the flag that draped his coffin at his son Steve's house in Bozrah.
"He was so proud to serve his country," said his friend Tommy Lee, who served in the Army in Vietnam from October 1968 to December 1969. "When we came home from Vietnam, we were shunned by most, except family. That's why I think Vietnam vets tended to bond together and share their demons with other veterans.
"I've never shared anything with my family. I don't get into specific details of patrols and I know Steve was the same way. Steve chased his demons for years. He was right in the thick of things. He was such a proud man. So proud to be an American, so proud to be a Marine."
Hancock enlisted in 1967. When he arrived in Vietnam, he wrote a letter to his mother that began, "Dear Family, Well, here I am in Nam and the place is all right."
They found a box of letters and pictures and newspaper clippings and military records in the attic of the house in Bozrah, where Brenda and Steve and the two kids lived for years. His meal card was there. A poem he wrote, which read in part:
'Make it back' is what we say
How many dodgers burned their cards today?
And then we wonder to ourselves inside
Have they no spirit, no country pride?
There is a telegram to his mother and father informing them "that your son Lance Corporal Stephen G. Hancock USMC was injured 5 February 1968 … he sustained a gunshot wound to the lower back." Another telegram arrived in May. It was another gunshot wound to the lower back, this one more serious. Eventually he was shipped back to the U.S., where he spent time recuperating and then at training camps in Washington and California.
He returned to Vietnam as part of a training operation in 1969 and was honorably discharged on March 5, 1970. He was decorated with a number of honors, including the Purple Heart, the Vietnamese Service Medal with four stars, the National Defense Medal and the Combat Action Ribbon.
"Other than my father, Steve was my hero," Lee said. "He was one of my heroes. He was a genuine man. He would open his arms to everybody.
"We talked, we wept. We held each other. A lot of guys who are Vietnam vets have gone through the same emotions. It was awful. It was horrible. He was an infantry rifleman. He was as far north as they could send people. It was ugly every day for him, and all the other Marines who were with him.
"During the Tet Offensive, it was an awful bloodbath for like two weeks. The biggest losses we took in Vietnam; he was in the thick of it."
And then he came home. Married. Had his family. Ran at thousands of road races. Sang the national anthem thousands of times. Wore his plaid jacket with the Plaiders at the Manchester Road Race.
"We used to be able to do the race in under an hour," one of his friends and fellow Plaider John Ficarra said in 2004 before the Thanksgiving Day 4.748-mile race. "But Steve gets a little carried away."
"We went to a lot of his races," Michelle said. "It was fun because afterwards, it was party time.
"He was an entertainer. He was the life of the party all the time. No matter what the situation was. He was an incredible dancer and would grab anyone and make them look like they knew how to dance. He was the backbone of our family, our support. I still feel lost to this day, seven years after he's been gone.
"He was a hero to my brother and I. We looked up to him."