Lost to PTSD, Agent Orange: Veteran to Receive the ‘Welcome Home’ He Never Had
Mike Bartkowiak was just 16 years old when he volunteered for the Vietnam War in 1968. Stationed in Germany and Thailand, he was sent to Vietnam in 1971. While there, he volunteered to be a door gunner. His time in Vietnam was attributed to saving comrades in Cambodia and Laos. Mike was fun and had an energetic spirit. His smile was warm. His hobbies consisted of nature and photography. Without taking a deeper look into his life in Vietnam, Mike was a simple man enjoying life to the fullest.
Mike lived the last years of his life in Cotopaxi, Colorado where he was a volunteer EMT for the Deer Mountain Fire Department. It was there that he would succumb to the wounds of war, PTSD and medical issues as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange.
Mike would later pass away as a result of these wounds on July 19, 2014. He was 62.
Mike’s family began noticing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in 2011. While working as a volunteer EMT, Mike’s life began to change. “He was very compassionate about his work to the extent he almost appeared a bit crazy,” his sister Sandra said.
When he came home, he never talked of it. He tried to live his life as normal as possible. He smiled, always. He tried many many things and didn’t stop.
That year, Mike’s nephew lived with him, who helped him turn his life around until his nephew moved back to Chicago. It was while he was alone that Mike’s life began to change. He began living his life in an RV with no electricity or water, shutting himself away from those closest to him. Mike did not renew his EMT license and lost a lot of weight.
It was a dark time for Mike and his family. There were times the family would not hear from him.
Mike served in the jungles of Vietnam in the early seventies, and it was there that his limits were tested, and the harrowing sights and sounds of war would later cling to him. When he returned home, his writings displayed a lot of hidden pain. He would write about his time in Laos and Cambodia, how it was kept a secret, and that most of the country was left in the dark about an expanded war, and what was happening.
This was his darkest time, his sister remembers.
“Mike saved many men on the lines of the Cambodian border and in Laos.” His actions earned him a Purple Heart, Army Air Medal, Commendation Medal, and the V Device for Valor. He was shot twice and lost 13 men who he has never forgotten.
In Mike’s last Facebook post before he died, he wrote, “The 17th of July was a Sunday. My life ended as I knew it. With the loss of my last friend and 2 bullets slowing down a touch as they hit me. In all 14 men shot. I was the only one that lived. They are still there, 22 Kilometers inside of Laos. In many ways I never left that place, in many ways I never left the war. Maybe I never will.”
In addition to PTSD, Bartkowiak was suffering medical issues from his exposure to Agent Orange. His skin would blister; he had severe bowel problems, and was sterile as a result. Unable to receive adequate treatment at the Department of Veterans Affairs, he self-medicated himself.
While demons from the Vietnam War took Mike from his friends and loved ones too soon, he is remembered for being “a strong man, a strong boy who went and volunteered to go into the Vietnam War.” Mike bravely took it upon himself to serve his country, and did so with spirit. “He never backed down. He stood tall and went in the battles with an armor.” Sandra referred to this armor as God. She described Mike as a spiritual man, not necessarily a religious man but knowing that something bigger was out there.”
When he came home from the war, he never talked of it. He tried to live his life as normal as possible. He smiled, always. He tried many, many things but the pain didn’t stop.
Sandra’s birthday is June 20, the day of the 17th Annual In Memory Day Ceremony. She says, “I am so grateful this event is taking place for Mike, it is a true gift to me on my birthday that we can honor this man who gave so much to this country.” However, Sandra makes it abundantly clear that it is his day, a welcome home he never had. The In Memory Ceremony will be in celebration of his life. “This is his ‘party,’ not mine.”
Mike is remembered for his fun, warped sense of humor. “He would walk in a room and always had that big grin on his face,” Sandra recalls. Mike was a jokester by nature, and soon after his return from his Vietnam, he would play Gin Rummy with his sister and they would stay up late into the night eating chicken livers. Regardless of it being a small-time activity, it was “such a fun time.”
Vietnam may have taken a large toll on Mike’s life, but his comical, warm attributes are what his loved ones are reminded of today, and what they miss the most. Sandra remembers “his sense of humor, his love of nature and beyond, and his smile. He was also a prankster who got the most laughs out of scaring people. Mike was her invincible big brother who loved his mother dearly, and never missed a Mother’s Day.
His spirit surrounds his sister who says, “If you hear a door creaking late at night, and no one is around, it is probably Mike.”
Sandra’s strongest memory was seeing him come home from the war with a big grin on his face.
Sandra will be one of hundreds, who will read the name of their loved ones, their heroes on Saturday. Sandra will be in attendance with her and Mike’s mother. They are overwhelmed with heartfelt joy that this is happening, and that Mike is finally being recognized for his service.
She said, this is for the heroic things he did and the horror that he went through at such a young age. “This is Mike’s ‘Welcome Home’ hero day, the day he never got when he came back to the States from Vietnam.” Mike, like many other Vietnam veterans returned from the war to a less than forgiving nation where many did not mention his service, people screamed at him, associating him as a “baby killer.”
Today is not then, and on In Memory Day, he and more than 160 veterans will get the recognition they so justly deserve.
This is their day to be recognized. A nation should never forget.
Communications Intern Kalli McCoy contributed to this blog.