This Memorial Day I’d like to shine a spotlight on my great-grandfather, Charles Matzenbacher, Civil War veteran. He was born in 1844 of German immigrant parents recently off the boat from Bavaria. The Matzenbachers settled in the Deutchtown section of Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, now Pittsburgh’s North Side, and ran a tobacco shop. In 1864 at age 18, Great-grandpa Charlie enlisted in the 61st Pennsylvania Volunteers and on May 9, 1864, was wounded in the bloody battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. (These facts are courtesy of my brother-in-law Ron Gonter, who spent considerable time tracking down the story.)
Charlie convalesced for something like six months before returning to duty, but evidence suggests he never got over his wounds. The war ended the next April and Charlie married a well-off local girl and you’d think the story would have had a happy ending. It didn’t. For reasons that always seemed mysterious, the marriage broke up shortly after the birth of my grandfather, Daniel Matzenbacher, and Charlie relocated to Middletown, Ohio, northeast of Cincinnati. There he served as a laborer and lived in a rooming house, and it was there in 1880 at age 36 that Charlie Matzenbacher died.
Now the twist: My great-grandfather died of a morphine overdose. When Ron uncovered this fact, I was shocked, but then I learned that the Civil War produced the first wave of morphine addicts in a time when no one understood the lethal ramifications of fighting pain with morphine. Treatment of that wound from Spotsylvania led to addiction, then apparent destruction of a marriage and, finally, death.
Tom Roten of NewsRadio 800 in Huntington, West Virginia, invited me on the air this morning to talk about my book Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. Over the course of 20 minutes on the air, we strayed into the territory of PTSD as it related to Jim Stewart and then to the shocking number of veterans who commit suicide every day. Many veterans carry wounds of war that aren’t apparent—wounds that have never healed and may never heal. These men and women don’t talk about the experience of war to civilians, because “how could you understand if you weren’t there?” War kills in so many different ways, whether it’s bullets or shrapnel or memories that can’t be endured. In Great-grandpa Charlie’s case it was drugs to dull the pain of a bullet wound that became a fatal drug habit. At first I considered this to be a dirty family secret, but now I think it’s anything but; my great-grandfather lived history and succumbed to history, and I’m proud to have his portrait and sword hanging over the mantel. He was a Civil War fatality who happened to make it 15 years past the end of open conflict. He gave his life as the result of service to his country.
Today I salute all veterans, especially those who served in combat and experienced more than anyone can or should. If you’re a veteran and you’re having trouble coping, whether your wounds are physical or emotional or both, please find someone to talk to. Soldiers have this need to gut it out, to feel that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Really, it’s a sign of strength. Don’t keep things bottled up inside; get help. Every time I see Charlie’s portrait I wish there had been compassionate help available and, especially, knowledge about the dangers of morphine. He was part of an army of addicted veterans shunned by a society that didn’t understand.
Veterans of every war come back changed, and it’s up to all of us to do what we can to help them find peace and to live out long and healthy lives.