Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1994, Page 51

In Memoriam

USS Liberty Survivor Thomas R. Reilly, Jr. 1947-1993

By James M. Ennes, Jr.

Anyone watching the USS Liberty survivors video now being advertised nationally and shown on some cable channels will long remember the interview with former Liberty crewman Tom Reilly. Tom presents an appealing and strangely pathetic picture as he described his experiences 27 years ago this month on June 8, 1967, when Israeli air and naval forces attacked his ship. Thirty-four of his shipmates were killed outright, many by a torpedo explosion. Another 171, including Tom, were wounded. The attack lasted more than two hours and ended only after the Israelis fired upon the ship's life rafts in the water-a serious violation of international law.

Tom had quit school in the 11th grade to escape an unhappy home life and see the world. Here he was, three years later, seeing mostly the working end of a paint brush or chipping hammer and only occasionally spending a few hours in some obscure African port.

He had just resumed his painting task on the ship's main deck following a General Quarters drill when Israeli jets appeared from nowhere firing rockets and cannon. He was seriously wounded in the first salvo. The blast overturned his five-gallon bucket of grey paint, leaving the wounded seaman floundering in a slippery sea of wet slop while the aircraft returned, again and again.

Tom once told me that he received several hundred shrapnel wounds, including innumerable tiny fragments in his chest and deep within his brain. His family verifies the story. They have seen the X-rays. His wife says that even last summer she found small pieces of metal in the sheets, still working their way free after 27 years.

Altogether, Tom spent about eight years in hospitals, mostly three to six months at a time, seeking some relief from his injuries. He didn't find it. One large fragment from an Israeli rocket pressed a vital area near his brain stem, causing seizures, headaches, and partial paralysis on his left side. Often the pain was so severe that he would fall to the ground, holding his head and screaming in pain. He dragged his left foot when he walked.

The VA gave him a 100 percent disability rating and a pension. The shrapnel in his head pressed on some vital areas; surgery to remove it was risky. An anti-seizure drug called dilantin could minimize the seizures, but Tom avoided the drug because it upset his stomach.

Tom used part of a disability payment from Israel to buy a small New Jersey bar he called "Charlie Kelly's. " Friends say it was a popular place. One day in 1976 a drunken patron shot Tom's bartender dead for refusing him another drink. The police investigation revealed that Tom had been paying his bartender "off the books," and cited him for the offense. Instead of answering the summons, he fled to Arizona. The shooter served 18 months for manslaughter and returned to the streets, while Tom became a fugitive.

He lived quietly in Phoenix where he divorced, married, and divorced again. Eventually he had four children. Always he suffered from the crippling headaches, seizures, partial paralysis, and a seething anger toward Israel for doing this to him. In 1979 he suddenly lost all memory for three and a half months. He didn't know his name or recognize anyone. When his memory returned, he thought he was back in 1969. Ten years of his life was a black hole.

In 1992, while living in Florida, he married a Canadian woman he met swimming. Her name was Cynthia, and she loved him.

In August of last year, Tom and Cynthia drove to New Jersey to attend the wedding of his nephew, his sister Gloria's son. Surely the old warrant had expired after 17 years. That hope vanished when Tom and Cynthia got into a noisy fracas and neighbors called the police. Tom was arrested, the old warrant turned up, and the downhill spiral started.

The first day in jail Tom had six violent seizures—his usual reaction to stress. A jail physician ordered the same drug that his VA doctors had prescribed. But someone must have misread the amount, as Tom complained that he was being forced to take from 8 to 13 capsules of dilantin each morning and again at night. If he resisted, he said, a guard would hold him while another guard forced the pills down his throat. He couldn't tolerate even one daily tablet, he said, and now he was being force-fed up to 26.

Tom begged for help. He complained that jailers stripped him, "beat him with pillows," forced his head into a mop bucket, and told him to use the public toilet for a shaving bowl.

At first, no one was certain how much of this was real or how much Tom's own fantasy. He did tend to become difficult and imaginative under pressure. Then they noticed during visits that Tom grew increasingly lethargic. He mumbled and slurred his words. He vomited blood several times during visits. He was losing weight rapidly. Then another prisoner called Tom's sister Gloria Hartong collect from the jail to say, "If you don't find a way to get him out of here, they will kill him."

A Plea for Better Treatment

Gloria's husband, Robert, a policeman in the nearby town of Clark, appealed to the jailers for better treatment. They provided a wheelchair, nothing more. By then, Tom had been moved to the jail's infirmary. For visits, Tom's friend Marty Mazzara tells us, guards would wheel Tom to a visiting room where he could only stare at the floor, mumble, and vomit. In less than three weeks he seemed to have aged 20 years.

Gloria called the VA hospital, begging doctors there to come to the jail to check Tom's condition. Sorry, too busy. Desperate, Cynthia drove back to Florida to retrieve his medical records. They could prove that he was a 100 percent disabled veteran who needed some real medical attention.

Ocean County dropped the domestic violence charges when no one showed up at the hearing on Aug. 19—not even Tom. The old warrant remained. On Aug. 26 authorities transferred him to Union County to face those charges, and here they recognized immediately that something was seriously wrong. The next day they sent him to Elizabeth General Hospital.

Gloria Harong says a doctor called her from Elizabeth General to say, "We are treating your brother for an overdose of dilantin." He had lost 41 pounds in 18 days. Seven days later, on Sept. 2, following several emergency procedures to remove or dissolve blood clots in his lungs, Tom Reilly died. Marty Mazzara quotes Tom's doctor saying that Tom was "essentially terminal" due to dilantin overdosing when he arrived.

New Jersey newspapers have no interest in the story. State officials will discuss the case only with the family and then only through attorneys.

The official autopsy report attributes the death to massive pulmonary embolism (clotting or blockage in the lungs) and acknowledges a toxic level of dilantin, which would seem to confirm the story told by the family. Despite that, the coroner saw this as a "natural" death. Because the death was declared "natural," the sheriff sees no wrongdoing and no need to investigate. The attending physician's report should add more vital detail. However, release of that report even to the family has been blocked by a court order. An attorney has advised the family that they have little recourse.

Tom Reilly was buried at Rosedale Cemetery in Linden, New Jersey, in a raging downpour on Sept. 9, 1993. The Disabled American Veterans provided a military funeral, including a 21-gun salute. He leaves his wife, Cynthia, four children from a prior marriage, his parents, two brothers, three sisters, and many friends and shipmates who will remember him as a troubled soul who deserved a better fate.