Some of Our Fallen Are Still Standing
"You may not know this, but I was married once. It didn't work out. But, she made me that."
"I know Dad. That woman was my mom."
"That was your mom? Are you going to hold that against me?"
"No Dad, not anymore."
We were packing up his belongings to move him into an assisted living facility and he could only pick a few things to fit in the suitcase or mail. His first pick was a cross-stick pattern of crossed cannons my mom made him. They are the symbol of field artillery.
The other choice was a large painting of a man leaning against the Vietnam Wall, touching the reflections of the fallen ghosts he remembered. My dad didn't know my name or who I was. . .but he knew those names.
My dad didn't tell me stories about Vietnam. But, oh was he a storyteller. He entertained me with so many other Army stories--tales of the horror and humor of Officer Candidate School, stories from his adventures in Central America, and plenty of anectodes from his days as a rascally youth.
Yet, all I knew about Vietnam was that he smelled the jungle if he heard a helicopter and that he had to sit with his back against wall wherever we went. I asked him once why he never shared stories about the war.
Then, he shared stories about the war.
He talked about the helicopter behind him getting blown up because for some reason the soldier with the mortar on his shoulder changed his mind at the last minute when he had been aiming at my dad. My dad's high school buddy was in the helicopter behind him and was supposed to go home the next week.
He told me about getting out of the back of a truck when a soldier barely stepped out of the tank tracks and triggered a land mine, killing himself and throwing my dad to the back of truck, filling his shoulder with shrapnel.
He told me about waking up in his tent to a volley of bullets, rolling under his bed, and finding his canteen filled with holes when the firing finally stopped.
I remember him looking at me and asking, "Do you think I want to talk about these things?"
My dad didn't come home to yellow ribbons tied around trees or free meals and oil changes for veterans. While he earned Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and a Silver Star, he came home to flags burning and people shouting, calling him a baby killer for answering a call from his country to fight a war.
And now, he doesn't know who I am.
Not all the fallen are buried in war. Some of them walk, wounded, for years. I do not know what Vietnam truly did to my father. I do not know how much of his dementia began in the rice fields of Vietnam.
I only know that, while my dad made some painful decisions, he served our country well. He laid down his life. And while he came back alive from Vietnam, there is not way to measure how much of him died there.
Not all our veterans carried the guns. Some of them held down the fort, kept a family together, and lived with the scars they couldn't understand. Some of our veterans held the flag at the graveside and held their children as their father was lowered into the ground.
Some made cross stitch patterns of cross cannons.
My mother never waded through rice paddies, but she carries scars of her own. She gave birth during my father's second tour. She wrote letters and hoped and prayed. And she lived a life with a man that, perhaps, she could never understand because of what he did in war.
War is hell. Every war, every time. And the men and women that fight in them, and those that love them, pay the price forever. The wars walk with them. They walk with all of us.