FAIR LAWN, NJ - It was a memorial that was a long time coming for Army Specialist 4, Michael E. Gaul, a man who affected so many around him with his humor and advice. But, ultimately, it may be his suffering that saves others.
Although the "real" Mike "died in Vietnam," as his family says, he lived many years beyond the time he left the difficulties of war and returned to Fair Lawn. His daughter, Paula Schuck, organized a July 4 memorial on Jasper Road, and along with family, friends and town officials, honored him and his "faithful service" to the United States and the U.S. Army in Vietnam, recognizing what ultimately killed him: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
"He was my hero, through good and bad," Paula said.
Mike died at the age of 40 from the complications that come along with PTSD, including depression and substance abuse, on February 3, 1989.
There wasn't a diagnosis for PTSD until 1980, according to Scott Dadaian, a representative of Military PTSD Outreach who spoke at the gathering. Mike was home about five years prior to that, and would often sit on his front porch on Jasper Road "staring into space."
"He was the messed up guy we used to ride past on our bikes," former Mayor John Cosgrove said. "We didn't know until later that he was suffering."
His family members, including his brother Tony Gaul, noted his destructive behavior that would come and go, and all said, it wasn't until later they understood what it was. Mike fell into drugs, alcohol and behaviors that would take him out of family life for weeks at a time.
"He would disappear for long periods," his nephew, Wes Harden, said. "He seemed off the wall. He fought in the war and then came back and fought his own battles at home."
By all accounts, his vibrant personality and kindly support before he went to Vietnam affected many in his family. His brother and nephew were especially close to him, and recanted many stories about his support during moments of their lives when they needed it most.
And none were shy about recounting the toughest moments, along with the best.
His daughter remembered:
"I sat down countless nights and started remembering the nightmares he told me as a child...I remembered when he would sit in the bathtub for days and nights...I remembered when he would make us sit in complete darkness...I remembered when he would not want to be bothered...I remembered him telling me his best friend was blown into pieces, and he tried to put him back together...I remembered the night he cried in his pillow...I remembered he would wake up and jump out of bed and jump on the floor..."
The Fair Lawn mayor and council attended the event, declaring July 4, 2020 as Michael E. Gaul Day. Mayor Kurt Peluso called PTSD "the silent killer," and noted former Mayor David Ganz's son lost his life to PTSD.
Veteran Nicholas Magarelli, who is the borough's Veteran Affairs Director, spoke, as well, saying he wanted to break the stigma of PTSD.
"I was diagnosed with PTSD. These guys saved my life," he said of the men from Military PTSD Outreach. "It's the most catastrophic injury of them all," Magarelli said.
Dadaian said the onset of PTSD has been prevalent in Vietnam veterans because it was "a different kind of war." Because it was fought differently that the previous wars, Vietnam left many veterans with wounds that were different, as well.
"There are two things about PTSD: red tape and stigma," Magarelli said. "The red tape of proving the condition and getting the help needed, and then the stigma. People call you crazy, a loner, unreliable. You take three steps forward and five steps backward."
Paula, Mike's daughter, seemed to be one of his proudest legacies.
"I went through my life missing him, not ever understanding why he left," she said. "I finally understand why he's gone. I finally understand his dreams and broken words. Although he was home, he was still fighting a war, in his head. He was suffering from PTSD. It all adds up now."
"He would tell me every day, Who loves ya baby." It's something that stays with her more than 30 years later.
That and all the other memories live on, along with the commemorative banner, which was unveiled on July 4 and hangs on the street where Mike lived and left his mark on so many lives. His story could help others afflicted by PTSD, another step forward for so many veterans and a fitting part of what's turning out to be an important legacy.
"He will forever be my hero," Paula said. "I am proud to be his daughter and until the day I die, I will continue to keep him my hero."