Let’s not forget sacrifices made by men, women in uniform
Recently my 4-year-old asked me if Grandpa killed bad guys named Charlie in Vietnam.
As unsettling as that was as a father, I knew the next generation was starting to learn about the seriousness of war and the sacrifices of those who serve.
My father first arrived in Vietnam in April 1968. He was a U.S. Marine who spent the next year of his life patrolling the hills just south of the old demilitarized zone.
When I was growing up, my dad talked a lot about Vietnam. He used to tell jaw-dropping, age-inappropriate war stories about tracer bullets, tunnel rats and two-man ambush teams.
I was probably 10 when I first heard the story of how he discovered his best friend floating down the river after a brief but deadly firefight.
As a kid, I don’t remember being scared or shocked by these stories. Dad told them so often and so matter-of-factly that they were just a part of my upbringing.
I remember one day finding Dad’s medals in his dresser. They were buried under a pile of balled-up socks and well-worn Fruit of the Looms. As I grew up, I wondered why someone who talked so much about Vietnam hid these important symbols of his service in a sock drawer.
I also wondered if he talked about Vietnam to anyone besides me. I suppose I made for a good audience at a time when the rest of the country wasn’t ready to listen. As my uncle would explain it years later, Dad shared those stories with me because “he knew I wouldn’t judge him.”
A lot has changed since that time. We embrace with both arms and overflowing pride the service of our troops. That’s a good thing, not just for the men and women who serve now, but also for the thousands of unappreciated veterans who served in Vietnam.
After several decades of ignoring his service in the Marine Corps, my dad now proudly displays an Eagle, Globe and Anchor sticker on his car. His medals are out of that sock drawer, too. They’re on a shelf, neatly arranged in a display case.
It’s been 45 years but even today my dad still halfway hits the deck when he hears an unexpected bang or loud thunderclap. This startling reaction is a reminder of how long the dark shadow of war can be for our combat veterans.
Our country’s renewed appreciation of our troops has undoubtedly helped my dad — and, one hopes, other veterans like him. I hope, however, that in addition to appreciation, we also can learn to better understand the sacrifices made by our veterans.
In June 2006, my dad went back to Vietnam and I went with him. It was a wonderful trip that enriched my understanding of the war and his experiences there. Throughout the trip, Dad retold many of the tales I had heard growing up.
He told me again about Robert Knisely. He was one of my dad’s closest friends, who was funny and had bright red hair. It was that red hair, Dad explained, that he spotted in the river after that brief but deadly firefight.
When I visit the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, I think about Robert Knisely. I think about his story and I remember how dad held the paper and helped me rub Knisely’s name from the wall as a keepsake. I also remember the powerful connection I felt when I did that.
This very real connection to the seriousness and tragedy of war is what I learned growing up as the son of a Vietnam veteran. It is what my sons are learning right now. They may not understand yet but one day they will, and they’ll both be better citizens for it.
After over a decade of war fought by a small percentage of the American population, maintaining a connection to the experiences of those who serve and sacrifice has never been more important.