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Fatal fire revealed veteran nobody knew

Jason Singer • Jun 10, 2010 at 12:02 PM


Five months later, the smell of smoke and burnt wood lingers.

Where the living room once existed, a pile of blackened rubble blankets the floor. Electrical wiring hangs loosely from the tattered rafters.

Only a few feet away, the firemen found the body of John C. O'Reilly.

Four years ago O'Reilly, a Vietnam veteran, moved from the Ohio Veterans Home into this trailer in Bayshore Estates, a quiet neighborhood on the east side of the city.

Here, he built himself a detached life, having little contact with friends, family and neighbors.

On Jan. 1, shortly after 2 a.m., an electrical fire tore through the trailer, taking O'Reilly's life and many of his possessions.

But for those who knew him, the blaze also burnt down the barriers O'Reilly erected to shield himself from the outside world.

For the past few months, Bob McCormick has scoured the charred debris, hoping to find clues about his little-understood cousin.

The clues McCormick found reveal a man vastly different from his public persona as an ill and simple-minded hermit. They show a scholar who spent the last four years of his life studying astronomy, foreign languages, American history, religion and music.

The clues may also provide a deeper insight into other veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

McCormick can't believe he never got to know this side of his cousin.

"I think most people who knew him would say, 'Oh, John, he's just some sick old Vietnam vet," McCormick says. "But he had all these things going on inside his head, all these hobbies and interests, which we never knew about. It's incredible. It's really sad that we never got to know this part of him, but his mind -- he was obviously much deeper than anyone of us imagined."

Scholarly Interests

Many of the artifacts that survived the blaze reside in a computer room, on the opposite side of the trailer from where the fire began.

On a wooden desk, two black ink bottles sit beside skinny calligraphy brushes.

Behind them, dozens of notebooks contain sketches of Chinese characters. Beside the characters, O'Reilly had written the English definitions of the Chinese words.

In the final years of his life, O'Reilly taught himself one of the world's most difficult languages.

On a cardboard box where he stored his notebooks, O'Reilly scribbled the following label: "Speaking of Chinese. (A Language that unites 800,000 people). A manual of transcription."

O'Reilly's other interests are strewn about the trailer. On the floor beside the desk sits "Guide to the Heavens," an interactive kit for mapping stars.

There are also books on American history, President John F. Kennedy, The Roaring 20s, the papacy, Judaism, Mormonism and many others. Some of the books are warped and wrinkled. Others sport partially singed pages.

In a corner near where the fire began, a large black asymmetrical blob is among some shattered glass. It looks like prehistoric volcanic rock.

But upon closer inspection, they're music cassettes, melded together by the 1,200-degree inferno.

Inside the blob is a small piece of newspaper, its edges blackened. The headline reads: "A Great Flame is Burning." It's a music review about Sergei Rachmaninov's symphonies. But the dark irony of the headline renders McCormick speechless. He shivers.

The discovery of O'Reilly's intellectual pursuits surprised many.

"He seemed so quiet," said Walter Hull, a former neighbor. "I always thought he was kind of slow."

Richard Gaynes, a former resident at the Ohio Veterans Home, said O'Reilly never talked about any special interests.

"He liked to drink a few beers and be by himself," Gaynes said.

But one of O'Reilly's best friends at the home, social worker Lance Franke, said O'Reilly was "an amazing set of contradictions."

He said O'Reilly had "one of the largest personal libraries of anyone at the home."

Franke recalled one instance where he walked in on O'Reilly using a draftsman's board, paper and T-squares that architects or surveyors might use.

"I said, 'John, what are you doing?'" Franke recalled.

"I'm studying to become a surveyor," O'Reilly replied.

"You're what? John, I had trouble with trigonometry in high school."

"Oh, that's not that hard," O'Reilly said, and continued working on his project.

When searching the trailer after O'Reilly's death, McCormick found a letter from the International Correspondence Schools. O'Reilly had indeed become a surveyor.

From war to withdrawal

John Charles O'Reilly was born Sept. 13, 1943, at Providence Hospital to a bread salesman and a housewife.

He graduated from Sandusky High School in 1962, and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force the following year.

According to military records, O'Reilly served three years and six months during the Vietnam War. He worked as a missile mechanic.

Shortly after enlisting, President Lyndon B. Johnson escalated the United States' commitment to the war, sending several hundred thousand extra troops between 1964 and 1966.

O'Reilly was one of those.

Yet of the 23 people interviewed for this story, no one knew anything substantial about O'Reilly's service. He never talked about it. Only the few medals, found among the trailer's rubble, give any hint of his military service.

In 1964, he received the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, which was given to those who served in South Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia during the early years of the Vietnam War. He also received the Vietnam Service Medal and Air Force Outstanding Unit Award.

Sometime in the 1970s, O'Reilly began living at the Ohio Veterans Home on Milan Road. Fellow residents said he quickly withdrew from human interaction.

"He was real quiet," said wing sergeant Bill Heller. "I didn't know him that well. I'm not 100 percent sure anybody did."

O'Reilly's one passion was bike riding. In 1996, he and Franke co-founded the Road Soldiers, a bicycling club at the home.

But even then, he rarely spoke with the other bicyclists as they pedaled alongside one another.

Doug Davis, the unofficial archivist for the Road Soldiers, said after O'Reilly's death, the club struggled to find photos of him.

"He was even shy of the camera," Davis said. "We were in the club together, and I probably never exchanged more than 12 words with him our entire time."

Franke said the one exception to O'Reilly's withdrawal was Ed Lafer, a World War II veteran at least 20 years older than O'Reilly. The duo, both bachelors, took several trips together, including jaunts to New York City and Gettysburg.

But Lafer died shortly after O'Reilly moved from the home, and O'Reilly never found another companion.

Post-Traumatic Stress

McCormick considers O'Reilly's withdrawn lifestyle was at least partially due to post-traumatic stress syndrome.

O'Reilly, in his own journals, gave indications that the home reminded him too much of the military.

When the veterans home switched to military time, O'Reilly wrote about his displeasure. His inability to watch particular television shows or play music at certain hours also reminded him of the Air Force's strict rules.

"I really need to be free," O'Reilly wrote in one journal.

Several doctors who are considered experts in the field of stress said it's not unusual for soldiers who saw combat to suffer emotional detachment from those they know. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that 830,000 Vietnam War veterans suffered symptoms of PTSD.

In one study, the department found that as many as 31 percent of veterans suffered from the syndrome at some point.

"All these people have been under a tremendous amount of stress," said Dr. Stephen Sonnenberg, a psychiatrist and adjunct professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

In addition to O'Reilly's emotional detachment, other clues hint at PTSD.

When searching through the trailer after the fire, McCormick and a small group of volunteers found 48 rolls of toilet paper, large stockpiles of soap and detergent, and enough coffee to start his own Starbucks.

Matthew Tull, a stress expert at the University of Massachusetts, said obsessive-compulsive disorder -- of which stockpiling cleaning supplies and food would evidence -- is often linked to PTSD.

He said studies show somewhere between 4 and 22 percent of people who suffer from PTSD also suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Obsession over small subjects allows them to feel like they have control over something. It helps, he said, because they can't control their other emotions.

Despite O'Reilly's internal battles, others saw hints that the stress syndrome didn't kill his spirit.

The day after the fire, neighbor Jean Gleason said O'Reilly mostly kept to himself. But she also said he was friendly and a lover of jazz. She took him meals from time to time.

When contacted last week for this story, Gleason choked up and declined comment.

"I -- I can't talk about this," she said, referring to O'Reilly as a friend. "Just know that he's missed very much."

And among the many objects McCormick found in O'Reilly's trailer was a card from St. Patrick's Day 2005.

McCormick and his wife, Priscilla, sent O'Reilly the card, which said, "John we're so proud to have you in our family. You've always been in our hearts."

Tears well in McCormick's eyes as he reads the smoke-stained card.

"Just the fact that he kept this... " McCormick starts, before losing his ability to speak. A lump forms in his throat.

Hull said the discovery of O'Reilly's academic achievements and the mementos he held onto show that America needs to make more of an effort to care for its veterans.

"Even if they seem damaged, you never know what's going on inside these guys' heads," he said. "Whether they're from Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan or whatever, many of these people still have a lot to offer."

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