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A wayward Vietnam veteran reunites with family after disappearing for over 50 years.

Tamala Baker had just gotten home from her job as manager of the soup kitchen in Athens on May 14 when she noticed the incoming call from Denise. The last time she’d had contact with her cousin’s half-sister was five years ago when Denise said she and her siblings wanted nothing to do with their biological father Walter Dukes, or with Baker’s family. So Baker knew something must have happened for Denise to call her out of the blue.

“Hey, there’s a detective trying to get in touch with you,” Denise said. “Walter had a stroke.”

In 2001, Baker had begun looking for her uncle, Dukes, a U.S. Air Force Vietnam veteran. She finally found a couple of addresses and a phone number through an online search, but her messages left at the number of the Salvation Army in San Francisco were never returned.

Baker’s daughter India with Dukes in 2015.

Finally, after he’d been missing for 45 years, Baker’s daughter tracked Dukes down at his residence on Maynard Street in San Francisco while on a business trip in 2015 and took a photo with him. He looked healthy and generally happy, but he wished to continue his reclusive life, so they’d respectfully left him alone without any subsequent contact. That photo was the last connection to her uncle, and the phone call from Denise was now met with even more uncertainty.

Baker immediately called the San Francisco police detective. He’d tracked down Baker’s children through items kept in his wallet—a laminated miniature copy of his DD257 detailing his general discharge from the Air Force, a Mississippi marriage certificate to his wife Geneva, and numerous wallet-worn black and white photos of his family. The detective had a road map straight to his children in Mississippi, who deferred to their half-sister Denise to let Baker know. But the tell-tale evidence of Dukes’ life for the last 50 years was a personal history dictated to his landlord’s daughter, Sandra, and printed on a folded crisp white paper that he also kept in his wallet.

The letter Dukes dictated to his landlord’s daughter Sandra before he went into the hospital.

Dukes arrived at Travis Air Force Base just outside of San Francisco in 1970 from Okinawa, Japan, where he was stationed at the end of his tour in Vietnam. Out of his eight years and three months of service stateside in Mississippi, he spent 10 months in Vietnam where he was attached to the 376th Strategic Air Command that performed bombing and air refueling missions over Southeast Asia.

At the time, African Americans represented 16.3 percent of all draftees in 1967 and 23 percent of all combat troops in Vietnam (see related story). In 1965, African Americans accounted for nearly 25 percent of all combat deaths.

It’s not clear what he endured or witnessed, but whatever happened to Dukes took its toll. He arrived in San Francisco with a DD257 general discharge in hand, the result of drinking and using drugs before his release. A general discharge meant that Dukes couldn’t receive civil service retirement credit for active duty and a forfeiture of any GI Bill education benefits. It also likely impacted his ability to receive unemployment benefits.

Too ashamed to go home and face his wife and three children, he went straight from the bus depot and got drunk. He wound up on Fillmore Street where he ran out of money and made friends with the homeless who taught him how to live on the streets. Ten years later, he was taken to the Veterans Administration hospital where he was treated for 28 days with a swollen liver and a blood clot in his leg.

The VA hospital was Dukes’ saving grace. He got help from the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center and received job training while living in their shelter. He worked first as a security guard, then as a trailer attendant in the Salvation Army stores, and earned enough money to rent a small enclosed front porch space. He’d been living off his Salvation Army retirement since then, earning extra money fixing small electronics from his bedroom.

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Annie Lou talks with her brother Dukes at his Sutter Hospital bedside.

Denise’s heartbreaking call propelled Baker, 53, and her Aunt Annie Lou (aka, Queen B), 80, into action. The detective said they didn’t have much time if they wanted to see Dukes, now 81, before he passed. The medical staff at Sutter Hospital in San Francisco didn’t give them much hope. He wasn’t eating and they couldn’t make sense of anything he was trying to say, except mama. But the pair decided to take the chance and book the next available flight, even if only to make funeral arrangements. Baker’s father Larinza, 77, elected to stay home and let his daughter and sister Annie Lou report back on his brother Dukes.

When they walked into the hospital five days later, Baker and Annie Lou were shocked to see a much different face than the one in the 2015 photo with her daughter. The hospital bed sheets swallowed Dukes’ frail body, his drawn cheeks and dark, sunken eyes unresponsive. But when Dukes heard his sister Annie Lou call, “Little B?” his eyelids parted slightly, his face lit up, and he whispered, “Mama?”

Baker tries to help her Uncle Dukes eat a bite of dinner.
Annie Lou helps Dukes talk to his brother Larinza (right) on FaceTime by phone

“Queen B looks just like my grandma,” Baker explained. “The last time he’d seen his Mama, she was about the same age as Queen B is now. He followed my aunt’s voice every time while she was there.”

The medical staff was mesmerized by Dukes’ sudden attentiveness. Before their arrival, he wasn’t eating. But Dukes let Annie Lou feed and pamper him.

“She brushed his little hair. She just kept loving on him. And he was like a little kid.” Dukes took to the attention as if Annie Lou was his mother. Later that night Baker, FaceTimed with her dad Larinza, an Army veteran of Vietnam.

“My brother, my brother. Oh, my goodness, it’s my brother,” he kept repeating.

Despite his sudden responsiveness, the doctors and nurses prepared Baker and Annie Lou for the inevitable: he was never going home and they should make arrangements for hospice. Then they took an Uber to Dukes’ home a few miles away. The route took them past the Salvation Army where Dukes had worked for 30 years, a couple of blocks from Mark Zuckerburg’s multi-million dollar townhouse, and under the 280 Southern Freeway to 87 Maynard Street. Baker was finally going to see where her uncle had lived for nearly 30 years.

Annie Lou (far left) and Baker (far right) worked with the hospital medical team to care for Dukes after his stroke.

Remembering Where He Came From

Three small bed sheets threaded by a green rope extended across one end of the enclosed porch, fastened together with black binder clips for privacy. Baker peered behind the makeshift curtain, taking a moment to absorb the scene. Her uncle’s makeshift room in the one-story clapboard structure, squeezed in between two large brick houses, told the story of Carlton, Georiga native Dukes’ last 50 years.

Dukes’ living space was no more than 10 x 10 ft., barely enough room for the twin bed and the boxes of electronic equipment packed neatly into a tall bookshelf and all along the back wall. A full-sized dresser with mirror was covered in light bulbs, medicine bottles, an old boom box, personal hygiene items, a water pitcher and a VCR. Calculators, electronic chargers and iPads spilled out of the bottom drawer, packs of crackers and canned meat were stuffed in another drawer. Rolls of paper towels, room deodorizer and a box of trash bags obfuscated two flat screen computer monitors and a printer on a modest stand, sitting next to a worn yellow metal chair with a ragged white vinyl seat cushion. The stained azure blue carpet was covered in dirt stains and tiny bits of trash.

Dukes sits in his room on the enclosed porch at 87 Maynard Street in this undated photo.

This was Dukes’ home, a humble front porch space he rented from a kind Ecuadoran couple, for over 35 years in San Francisco, more than 2,500 miles from Georgia. And now across town, he lay in a hospital bed getting ready to take his last breath.

The scene was a lot to take in. It seemed impossible that Baker’s uncle lived in such a small, primitive space for all those years. But perhaps the most shocking discovery of all is what they found between the mattress and box spring: large sheets of dirty, tattered, flattened cardboard, remnants of his life on the streets more than 30 years ago.

“It was like he never wanted to forget where he came from,” she said.

“I Think It’s Time”

After Baker and Annie Lou cleaned Dukes’ space and arranged for his things to be donated, they situated him in a hospice facility to live out the rest of his days. They didn’t want to leave him, but Baker had to get back to work after being gone for almost a week. They maintained contact with him once they were home.

“My aunt called and talked to him every day. The nurses would put the phone to his ear, and he would make gestures or make sounds,” Baker said.

On June 19, 32 days after Baker found out about her uncle’s stroke and the day before Father’s Day, Dukes died peacefully in his sleep. His remains were sent to Carlton where his family would figure out his final resting place.

Annie Lou and Larinza were finally at peace after finding the brother they’d not seen in over 50 years. The week after Dukes died, Larinza called every single person on his friends and family contact list scribbled on an envelope that he kept by his chair, according to Baker’s sister who lived with him. On Saturday, June 26, after he spoke with everyone on the list, except for one son who didn’t answer his phone, he headed toward the stairs.

Baker’s sister said, “Papa, you going to bed?”

“Yep, I think it’s about time,” he replied.

Upstairs in his room, Larinza folded his pants neatly on the chair, then got into bed, rolled over to face the window, and pulled the covers up around him. And that’s exactly how his granddaughters found him the next morning when they brought his breakfast to his room. He’d passed in the night, like his brother Dukes, with a peaceful smile on his face.

A Repast for Heroes

On July 10, Dukes and Larinza’s family gave them a joint military funeral and a heartwarming repast, a gathering to celebrate the lives of two brothers who’d spent more than half a century apart and finally reunited in death. Around 100 family and friends gathered for the home-going, in which Annie Lou was presented with a military flag for each brother for their service.

The family is arranging with Wreaths Across America to tag two trees with the Duke brothers’ names in the Veterans Remembrance Tree Program. In December, the family will lay wreaths made from the balsam trees at the military cemetery in Milledgeville where Dukes and Larinza’s ashes will be interred.

The Vietnam veteran who endured lifelong repercussions of war will finally receive the welcome and recognition he so deserved 51 years ago. At long last, Walter Dukes has come home to his family.

Story Update!

Thanks to our readers for doing their own investigative work. 87 Maynard Street has undergone some major renovations since this summer and is now for sale. Here are a couple of updated photos from the Zillow sales page taken of the front of the house and where Walter stayed. It’s a bargain price of $668,000 (for San Francisco prices), originally built in 1909.

*This story has also been updated to clarify DD257 general discharge terms.

Related stories: My Vietnam Decision: Join or Be Drafted, My Vietnam Decision: Deferment and Luck, Letters from Vietnam Part 1, Letters from Vietnam Part 2, Letters from Vietnam Follow-Up

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