Bernie “Doc” Duff

SLEEP WELL, MY BROTHER: TRIBUTE TO ROBERT L. GROSS

Cil and Bob Gross
Cil and Bob Gross
It is with a truly heavy heart that I begin today’s blog. Today I want to share a special story about a very special guy. Like many Vietnam vets, I refer to him as my brother, but this time, the story is about my real brother, or brother in-law. As I begin this message, Bob is on his deathbed, possibly already having spent his last breath on earth. He is there, in Portland, Michigan and on the other side of the planet from where I sit typing to you now. Bob is one of those career vets who spent multiple tours of duty in Vietnam, answering his country’s call without so much as a blink of an eye. He had taken a vow to defend and preserve those things he held so dearly to his heart, in defense of his nation. Above all, anyone who knew Bob knew that he was patriotic beyond question and never hesitated to express his love for God, family and country.

Going back to the time when I was just a snot nosed brat making life very miserable for my sister (and his wife to be) Cil, I remember Bob being this tall strong character that was larger than life and the kind of guy a kid could easily transform into a hero. Well, for my brothers and I, that is exactly what he did. He would bring us out to the thick woods behind his parents’ home in Muskegon, Michigan and share his love of nature with us. He was always patient and willing to explain and share that knowledge to each of us. To us, it seemed as if he even walked like a majestic buck, head and shoulders above anyone I had ever met, although he was not particularly tall physically speaking. When we were with him, it seemed as if nothing on earth could ever harm us and that we were almost as invincible as he was. Back in the day, he was our superhero, our Superman, or Green Hornet or Captain America all rolled into one! When we heard that Bob had enlisted in the Army – well, that only intensified those superhero images. Heck, he was becoming a paratrooper and had the courage to jump out of airplanes! I can still remember the photos that my sister (now his wife) proudly shared with us of him standing there in all of his gear. Cool! As I grew and became a zit faced teenager, I would brag to my girlfriends about how I would become an airborne ranger, just like Bob!

After a few years passed, Bob had gone to the NCO Academy and later decided to go to Officer Candidate School (OCS). By this time, Bob had decided to make the Army his career, since nothing in life could ever match as perfectly, his desire to represent the deep love he had for his country. During this time, my brothers and I would always look forward to the trophies he would bring us when he returned home on leave. We had a host of military gear, from patches of all kinds to a gas mask, which we proudly wore around our neighborhood in front of our very jealous friends! In the early 60’s, Cil returned to Muskegon with her family, letting us all know that her husband was heading off to a war most of us knew very little about: Vietnam. I still recall the party they had to send him off to that war, one that my brothers and I just knew he would win all by himself… even better than the images of Rambo because we KNEW Bob! As we all now know, Vietnam was something that could not be won… not by anyone from either side. People still argue about a victory, yet those of us who have witnessed over the years, in war, there are only losers, NEVER winners.

Many years later, while walking through Vietnam, on what we all called The Orange Walk, I learned that my hero had been diagnosed with several forms of cancer, undoubtedly the result of Agent Orange. Although I had been surrounded by the human suffering caused by this cruel result of war, it is still something that stabbed me in the heart. It was as if God was really trying to bring it all home to me the reality of what we were doing. Bob Gross, the man that to me had always seems much, much larger than life and sparkled with patriotism had been given an impossible diagnosis and I was left to think about it with each step that stood between me and Hanoi. When visiting those who were suffering along that route, I would share Bob’s story and in every case, they mourned along with me. There was never a word from them about who was responsible, only that they truly felt me pain… MY pain! Imagine that.

Bob and Cil Gross
Bob and Cil Gross
It saddens me deeply that when Bob filed for disability through the Veterans Administration, he, like countless other veterans was told that he could not prove that his cancer was caused by Agent Orange. It was a slap in the face to a man who had given his all and would now be forced to walk alone, without the support of a country he had always served without question. In his final hours, Bob was angry… as angry as I am at a government who could turn its back on its staunchest supporters. Unfortunately, I met with many of those who consider themselves to be patriots and heroes in their pristine offices in Washington, DC. Along with Bob Schuessler and John Simpson (also a Vietnam vet who is recovering from cancer treatment), we walked from Senate office to Senate office seeking a compassionate politician willing to hear about the things we witnessed on our trip through today’s Vietnam. There, we left copies of our film clip, but to this day, I doubt if even one of those politicians, or even their aides took time to view the twenty minute clip. Agent Orange is a “dirty word” to the heroes of the political world. So should I have been surprised to hear that Bob was turned down for his disability claim? In one respect, it came as no surprise at all, yet the boy that had always looked upon a real hero named Bob was appalled! How could THIS man ever be denied? Just last night, the final moments of his life, so it seems, Bob felt hurt and angry at the same things he valued about most things in his life. His wife Cil and their children, Bob Jr, Lynn, Dawn, Deanna and Steve all did their best to console him, and I’m sure that they managed to convey their deep love to him and to settle his spirit. Like them, I love my brother, Bob. Like them, I will miss his strength when I am weak. Like them, I know that he will always be with me and walk with me along each walk we take to remove this huge mistake on humanity. In April, another Orange Walk… or rather, an Orange Ride will begin. In April, I will be talking with you a lot, my Superhero! Welcome Home… at last!!

***As a footnote: I was told that moments ago, with his family all around him and tears flowing down their cheeks, that as the Priest administered the Last Rites of the Church to him, Bob suddenly woke up, sat up in the bed and asked, “Did I miss the Party?” My hero to the end!