I have to admit that on most Veterans/Memorial Days, I let them come and go without much thought. Even though my dad served during the Vietnam War and my mother’s father in World War II, I don’t feel like I come from a military family per se. Probably because my dad never talked about his time in the service and my grandpa was dead and gone before I had a chance to ask him anything.
As I was growing up and learned more about Vietnam, I thought (perhaps) the war was the reason why my dad was such a taciturn, quick-to-anger character. I had a whole explanation in my head that he must have had to drop bombs on little Asian babies (he was in the Air Force) or witnessed the torching of entire villages. That would explain why he was so distant, so gruff towards me while I was little.
By the time I was twelve, I had the nerve to ask him about his military service, and he just laughed it off, saying to me, “No, I never actually went over to Vietnam. I was stationed in northern California and Greenland – hardly anything to cry over.” There went my theory. He wasn’t suffering from PTSD. He was just an asshole.
Years went by, and my father and I grew further apart before we eventually called a truce and found something as close to common ground as we’re ever going to come. One of the moments that brought us there came in a South Florida movie theater. We went together to see the film, “Saving Private Ryan.” The first few minutes of the film are pretty gruesome, showing the soliders storming the beaches of Normandy, sea water foaming red from the blood spilled. But that’s not what got to him. It was the scene where the soldiers come to Private Ryan’s home, and his mother collapses on the front porch. I look over to see my own dad, sitting next to me in a wheelchair (crippled by multiple sclerosis), silently crying with his shoulders shaking. I was stunned, not even being able to remember a time I saw my father so upset. I asked him what was wrong and he told me, “That was my job during the war, to alert the next of kin when their son or father or brother had been killed. It was…absolutely horrible.”
“Why didn’t you ever tell me about that?” I asked him.
He wiped his eyes and sighed. “I don’t know. I guess I just didn’t want to remember.”
Then I put my arm around him and squeezed his hand, and the best part about it was that he let me. He allowed me to see him at his most vulnerable, and he let me comfort him.
So that’s what I will remember today on Veteran’s Day…not just the soliders who fought and lost their lives, but the ones who had the luck and burden of being left behind.