Thinking of My Father Today:
Recently, I saw a child who had written a short paragraph on what Veteran’s Day meant to them. That made me think long and hard about what it means to me. I have always had nothing but the greatest respect for all our veterans. They keep us and our country safe with the sacrifices they make. A sacrifice I know I could not make myself.
But for many years, Veteran’s Day was not something I celebrated. For me, it only reinforced childhood memories I wanted to forget.
My mother used to tell me stories when I was younger about my father and how he swept her off her feet. He was charming, good looking, and a great romantic. I loved reading the poems and old love letters he had sent her. I think I read them just as many times as she had considering their battered state. You could see the effects of the many times they were unfolded, read, and refolded. Then they would be returned to their box until the next time.
If you asked anyone who went to school with my father, they would tell you how talented he was. He was one of the best jazz trumpet players they had ever heard. He was voted by his senior class as most likely to succeed. There was even a time that he was a cub scout den master. Handsome, smart, generous, intelligent, talented, ambitious and caring. These words were always used to describe him.
I could not reconcile this in my mind. This was not the man that I saw every day.
The man I knew as my father was not ambitious. He certainly was not a romantic, nor did he seem to be that generous or caring. The father I knew was a selfish drunk who spent his days cussing anyone who crossed his path. My mother would reassure me that the man she married was not that man that he had become. My entire childhood was spent in fear of the man that everyone used to admire. At sixteen, I took the first opportunity I had and left home.
It would take me many years to understand what had happened to the man I never knew. Daddy had enlisted in the Air Force right out of high school. His family could not afford to send him and his younger brother to college, so to daddy, the only option was to enlist. His enlistment also ensured that his younger brother would not be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Daddy’s enlistment was not a totally selfless act, as he was made promises by the Air Force that to an 18 year old from a poor, small town that wasn’t even a dot on the map sounded like the real solution to all his problems.
He was told if he enlisted he would remain stateside. After his enlistment was over, he would receive help to go to college. Serving in the Air Force would make his life better when he got out. He had put his hopes and dreams into a promise that would not be kept.
He did not remain stateside. In fact, he had not been in the Air Force very long before he was sent to Thailand. He would see unspeakable things. He would lose numerous friends. He witnessed children dying. More than forty years has passed and he still barely speaks of his time overseas. The little I have learned about his time in the Air Force has come from sitting in on his sessions with his psychologist.
The few things I have learned about his time overseas during these psychologist appointments are heartwrenching.
Many men lost their lives in Vietnam. What most of us do not understand, and it took me many years myself to understand, that not all those who returned home came home alive. They were betrayed numerous times by the government, only to come home and feel betrayed by the people who threw rotten tomatoes at them as they got off the plane. They were called baby killers and worse.
My father found the only way he knew how to cope – Alcohol.
Alcohol stole his life. Alcohol stole my childhood. I am not saying that all Vietnam Veterans came home and drank away their troubles. But for my father, it was his way to avoid thinking about the things he saw and most likely the things he had to do to survive.
My father continued to drink until he reached the lowest point in his life. My mother left him. His children had pretty much written him off. He tried suicide by cop and was admitted to a mental institution. Looking back now, it was a blessing in disguise as he never drank again. But the damage was done.
At this point, I must admit to something that I am not very proud of. I had a friend in high school whose father was killed in Vietnam. She never got to meet her father and he died a hero. As terrible as it sounds, I secretly envied her. The image of her father would never be tarnished. Her father would not come home a changed man who turned to alcohol to solve his problems. Her father would never tell her in a drunken rage that she was never meant to be born.
We both had stories of a man we never knew, but she did not have to deal with the man he had become.
Why do I tell you these things you might ask? Because it took most of my life to be able to begin to vaguely understand my father. He is estranged from most of his family at this point in his life due to his inability to cope with his experiences in Vietnam. I only began to understand how hard this was for him when it became obvious he could no longer live by himself.
Against my better judgement, I moved him in with me.
To my surprise, his attitude towards life has changed in the last couple of years that he has been with me. I get to see joy on his face when my grandchildren come to visit. He has many more ‘happy’ days than he used to. I have learned things about him, as I am sure he has learned things about me. We have a much better relationship now than we have ever had in my entire life.
I would love to tell you that having my father live with me is all happy and blissful. Unfortunately, that would probably be the biggest lie I would ever tell. Helping someone deal with PTSD on a daily basis is no picnic. In fact, most days are quite stressful. My father now receives treatment for PTSD, but for many years Vietnam Veterans were neglected.
Many people did not even understand the struggles veterans faced alone. I certainly did not understand.
So, as we celebrate Veteran’s Day today, please keep in mind that thanking our soldiers for their service is not enough. Just as I had to learn the hard way, our soldiers need someone to love them unconditionally, through the good days and the bad, because we can never understand what they have been through. There have been many tears shed on my part, but I am thankful that on the good days I sometimes catch a glimpse of the man I never knew.