Sister Tells Healing Story of Vietnam Veteran in ‘A Wartime PH.D’

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In very large Irish Catholic families, the older brothers and sisters are often like the spices I have in my cabinet; I know cardamom and nutmeg are there but I don’t often think of them, rarely use them.

So, when I had the opportunity to read, A Wartime PH.D – One Soldier’s Story of Vietnam and Learning to Live Again  by Judith Kelliher, just like using that saffron in my cupboard,  my world expanded. Bobby Kelliher became real, deepened my understanding of a neighbor, a war, an older brother, a community.  

Bobby is one of eight children who lived near me when I grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts.  Bobby, too, went to Holy Name Grammar School, Cathedral High School, ran around Forest Park. 

His mother, Bette Kelliher, was my fourth and sixth grade teacher. She instilled in me a love for writing, for grammar, for learning.  

Susan Dromey Heeter, Joyful Musings

But, Bobby, being several years older than I was, well, like cardamom, I knew he was there but that was about it.

A Wartime PH.D – One Soldier’s Story of Vietnam and Learning to Live Again  is a memoir of a young man and a family impacted by the effects of war.  Judy is Bobby’s youngest sister; she was not even ten when he left for Vietnam.  Judy spent hours asking her older brother, Bobby, about his experiences in Vietnam, experiences that, as Judy writes, 

“Many times, as he responded to questions, he had difficulty speaking. He would try and hold back tears, his right leg would shake, and he would hold up his right hand as if to say, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get through this.’ 

Judy illustrates a day in her brother’s tenth month in Vietnam:

Bobby was standing inside a doorway to a bunker.  Right in front of him was a fellow soldier with the nickname of ‘Biggie’ whose size made him look like a professional linebacker.

Nearby, three soldiers – each manning a Howitzer for which they were specially trained – were in an artillery pit when a lieutenant who served as the forward observer, the equivalent of the North Vietnamese Army spotter, climbed on top of the pit to get a better look at the flashpoints of the enemy’s weapons off in the distance.  The lieutenant quickly directed his men to fire artillery shells back, giving them the coordinates that would hopefully force the enemy to retreat. Within seconds of that command, Bobby could see the blinding lights of the enemy mortar rounds, and he called to Biggie to get inside the bunker, worried he would be in the line of fire. As Biggie stepped into the bunker, the artillery pit took a direct hit.

Instantly, the lieutenant and the artillery gunners in the pit were gone. Obliterated. Vaporized by enemy fire with virtually no trace of their existence.  The pit was now a gravesite.

In her book, Judy captures moments like these and shares them with her reader in a way that allows depth, allows compassion, allows insight; Judy is a beautiful writer; this and other compelling stories are ones I am so glad she took the time to tell.  It needed to be told, the healing is palpable; the honesty so tender.  

And, like many families, particularly Irish Catholic broods, it’s not often the honesty, the truth, the depths of experiences that come fully forward – generally it’s just jokes, funny stories, inside humor.  

When I asked Judy to give me five words to describe her experience of writing her brother’s memoir, she responded, “interesting, challenging, revealing, emotional and grateful.”  Judy added to “grateful – grateful I was able to do it.”

And, today, I muse joyfully that Judy was able to do it, muse joyfully on A Wartime PH.DOne Soldier’s Story of Vietnam and Learning to Live Again and thank Judy for writing of her brother’s experience, strength, hope. 

Bobby is retired and living with his wife Margaret in Wilbraham, Massachusetts.

I invite you, dear readers, to read this compelling book, and invite you to ask your own siblings of their lives, their experiences.  Like using those spices in the back of your cabinet, you may find they not only enhance your life, they make it better. 

A Wartime PH.DOne Soldier’s Story of Vietnam and Learning to Live Again by Judith Kelliher is available on

Susan Dromey Heeter is a writer from Dover who recently let her hair go au natural white. Writing has been her passion since her English majoring days at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.  Dromey Heeter has lived in The Netherlands, Alaska and currently basks in all things New England, including the frigid winters. An avid swimmer, Dromey Heeter’s great passion is to bring back body surfing as most children have no idea how to ride waves without ridiculous boogie boards.

The opinions expressed are those of the writer. takes no position on politics, but welcomes diverse opinions. email

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