Bernie Friel: Quiet Man and Humble Hero

Written by Ann Friel

 

 

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Bernie Friel in-country, Vietnam (circa 1967)

Prelude

This is the story of someone I have known and loved for most of my life, my little brother, Bernie. A very proud Marine, Sergeant Bernard Joseph Friel, USMC, was a victim of Agent Orange and its painful aftermath that stretched over many years. His story is not unusual nor special except to those who knew and loved him so much. His story is exactly the same as any of his fellow sufferers and their families – hard to take, completely unavoidable and filled with anguish – because in the end, there was nothing we nor anyone could have done to make the outcome different.

Bernie was the third of six children from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A child of Irish heritage on both sides of our family, Bernie learned the lessons taught to each of us: love God and His Blessed Mother; love your parents and your brothers and sisters; love your country; treat all with honor and love. Bernie held these lessons close to his heart.

He attended Saint Francis of Assisi School and Cardinal O’Hara High School both in Springfield, PA. When he graduated from O’Hara, the Vietnam War was in full swing. In an attempt to shield his two younger brothers from having to go to war, Bernie did what Bernie always did – he took care of his family – and joined the Marine Corps at 18 with full knowledge that he would eventually reach the shores of Vietnam.

 

The Marine Corps

 

After training at Parris Island and Camp LeJeune, Bernie was deployed to Vietnam by way of Camp Pendleton, CA. The last time I saw him before he shipped out was in San Francisco, where I was living at the time. I remember clearly the sunny, quiet Sunday afternoon in July 1967 as I drove him down to City Hall to catch the bus for Camp Pendleton. From there, he would deploy to Vietnam. I kissed him goodbye, held him close and thought – I will never see him alive again.

During his tour in Nam, Bernie, along with his fellow Marines, participated in two major battles among many others: Con Thien and Khe Sahn. His last duty was in the Pacification Program, where he led a group of Marines charged with the protection of a village with hundreds of people – not knowing who was friend nor foe. I guess he did a great job because he was wanted “Dead or Alive” by the North Vietnamese and had the paper to prove it!

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Bernie Friel before deploying to Vietnam.

In 1968, Bernie returned home. When he walked into my apartment that night, the first words I said to him were, “I never thought I would see you alive again”. We immediately called home. Our Dad, a devout Catholic, had announced months before that Bernie would come home on the 15th of August, Feast Day of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother into Heaven, a major holy day in the Catholic Church.  When we called home that night, it was 9:05pm San Francisco time on August 14th which meant it was 12:05am Philadelphia time, August 15th. When Bernie walked into our house in Springfield it was the 15th of August – just as our Dad predicted.

 

 

Back to the World

Once Bernie was back and out of uniform, he secured work and built a life for himself. He resumed his civilian life but it took him a few years to rid himself of the effects of PTSD. For the most part, he was not as seriously damaged by this as we know so many are today.

Bernie was married on August 18, 1973 to his wife, Trish.

Bernie and Trish had two sons: Brian and Mike, a wonderful daughter-in-law, Allison, and four granddaughters. Brian is a successful business executive and Mike is a pediatric craniofacial surgeon.

 

Challenges

 

The first major medical challenge Bernie and Trish experienced in their marriage was not with Bernie but with Mike being born with a bilateral cleft palate and harelip (which is recognized as a fall out of Agent Orange exposure). The challenges Bernie and Trish faced were many, but they educated Mike on what was important, enabling him to overcome his medical and emotional wounds.

The second major medical challenge would be even worse.

Before a special trip to Ireland, Bernie called me to say that he was ill and was undergoing tests – that it might be cancer. When I landed back home in Philadelphia, I immediately went to my brother’s house. He told me that he had been diagnosed with cancer from something called Agent Orange. The diagnosis: Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He explained that Agent Orange was a defoliant used in Vietnam to kill foliage so that our servicemen could more easily identify the enemy. I thought, if it can kill foliage, a living organism, I guess it can kill people. His prognosis was unknown but he was to enter into a group being tested to undergo newly defined medical protocols. Finally, the concept of a bone marrow transplant to cure his lymphoma in his stomach and liver appeared to be the only means of salvation.

Thankfully, Bernie was treated successfully – or so we thought. After being out of work for over a year and totally supported by his management, he returned to work and his life.

 

The End

 

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Bernie Friel

The third, final, and worst challenge was faced with the same determination as the other two, but not with the same successful outcome. Too soon, the cancer returned. This time it attacked his lungs and other organs. The doctors felt it was cancer caused by Agent Orange that had returned. The Veterans Administration noted Bernie to be 100% disabled due to Agent Orange. I watched as this strong man, over the span of four years, gasped for breath, lost control of his body and out of frustration, had tears coursing down his face because, enough was enough. I often wondered how much suffering must one person endure because of his service to his country.

It became clear that this time, there was no cure available. I watched as my brave, good brother suffered knowing the end was in sight. It is a humbling sight to help your 6 foot 2-inch brother stand upright for a medical exam from his visiting nurse.

Eventually, he entered the University of Pennsylvania Hospital where he was known for his kindness, humor and absolute decency. When all hope was lost, he left the hospital and entered hospice. Before he left the hospital, every doctor and nurse who had cared for him over a four-year span came to hug him and kiss him goodbye. They told him how much they loved him and what an honor it was to care for him. I will never forget watching each of them say goodbye to him.

Bernie faced the end with honor and acceptance. Never once did I hear him complain about the hand he had been dealt.

After one week at hospice, Bernie died with his wife, his boys and his daughter-in-law by his side. I made it to his room moments after he died and kissed him goodbye.

 

Remembrance

In an Irish Catholic family, the oldest girl is the Deputy Mother. Her job is to take care of her younger brothers and sisters and to teach them by example. Well, in this instance, my little brother taught me. He taught me how to be unfailingly kind, strong when it was not easy to be, accepting of the hand that had been given to him.

Bernie never met a stranger and his friends never met anyone with so much love and kindness in his heart. After my parents, Bernie was the most genuine person I have ever known. He personified the greatness that comes from within. He was a terrific son, brother, husband, father, and friend. His life was the greatest lesson.

Better still – hear what his sons say about their Dad:

Brian: “A man whom I aspire to emulate in my own life. Honorable and genuine in all facets of life, with a unique ability to quietly lead by example. Humorous and playful with many, he personified dedication to that which is important: family, faith and country…”

Mike: “Gentleman is how I remember him in all matters. Principled with great work ethic and a contagious laugh. Total softie around his two granddaughters.”

 

Last Thoughts

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Bernie Friel before deploying to Vietnam.

From a young boy of 18 to a man of 63, Bernie Friel fully lived the Marine Corps motto that exemplified his life: “Semper Fidelis – Always Faithful”.

Sleep well, Marine. Sleep well, Little Brother. Thank you for your service to our country. Thank you for showing me the way.

Your big sister, Ann.

Bernie Friel will be honored through the 2017 In Memory Ceremony. To learn more about the In Memory program, click here.

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