Sunday, May 27, 2012

Happy Memorial Day, Daddy

This column is about animals and the first person who taught me to love and respect animals was my Daddy. He has been gone from this earth many years and I miss him on a daily basis. Life's lessons come to the front of my mind each time I observe someone doing something stupid. Daddy was not perfect and never presented himself that way, but he believed in honor, respect, justice and the U.S.A.
The following was written several years ago and can still bring tears to my eyes. I hope you enjoy it.

My father's picture hangs in the living room of my mother's house. The American flag that draped his coffin is folded and put away. He was a veteran.
Vietnam was not a popular war, but it was a war just the same. Soldiers fought and died as they have in this country since our Revolution. They did not do it for glory or recognition, but because they were asked to by their country. My father was born in Alabama, the first of six children. His love affair with the military began when he was a little boy. He would watch the World War II soldiers from Fort Rucker march down the road beside his grandfather's farm. His grandfather would pump water from the well for the soldiers.
One day, the sergeant asked his grandfather not to give his troops any extra water, because they must learn to drink only the ration given them. His grandfather's reply: It was his pump, his water, and as long as those boys were marching for his country, he would stand outside and pump water for them all day. This made quite an impression on Daddy, and I never heard him express any desire to be anything but a soldier.
He became a soldier in 1950, when he lied about his age (he was 14, no proof of age was required) and joined the National Guard. In 1953, after high school graduation, he went in the regular army. More specifically, the field artillery. He was 17. His basic training was at Fort Polk, La., and he retired from active duty at Fort Rucker, Ala., in June of 1973.
In between, he moved his family, which came to include a wife, three kids and a dog, all over the world: Fort Riley, Kan.; Fort Benning, Ga.; Schwabisch Hall, Germany; and Fort Sill, Okla. All the important years and dates in my life are tied in to Daddy's military service and where we were stationed. Daddy missed a lot of birthdays and special occasions. This came with the territory.
By 1964, the rumblings of American involvement in Vietman were sounding through the military grapevine. Daddy figured the artillery would be among the first to go, and he was right.
In 1965, the orders arrived. That's when the picture was made. It was for my mother in case he didn't come home.
From Vietnam he wrote letters about the people and scenery, along with little stories about funny things that happened, but not about his job. He set up radio teletype communication systems in DaNang, Na Trang, Long Bien and Saigon. He flew around in choppers from place to place, with big radios and a little-known herbicide to drop on the vegetation, Agent Orange.
He served his year and came home. My mother never doubted he would. The picture remained on the living room wall. He began teaching communication at the signal school at Fort Gordon, Ga., where the Signal Corps is based.
It was also the largest orthopedic center for the veterans coming home from Vietnam. In 1968, I was 11 and the wounded veterans would line up in the hospital hallways. No arms, one leg, missing hands. They made an impression. I asked questions. What happened to them and why? They made the war very real to me. Daddy tried to explain. He always said they were the heroes. Most were young, just a little older than me. Most were draftees. They sacrificed even though it was not their choice. Daddy didn't understand the animosity toward these kids. They were soldiers doing what was asked of them.
Daddy retired in 1973. He got a regular job working in the Post Office and went back to civilian life.
In 1990, the phone call came. I was at work. He had been feeling pretty bad and the doctor ran some tests. Cancer, several kinds, in fact, and the prognosis was not good. Renal-cell carcinoma, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, foreign-sounding names for devastating diseases. Trips to kidney doctors and oncologists and the VA. One hundred percent disability.
After years of denying that Agent Orange caused many of the symptoms the veterans were experiencing, the government had finally acknowledged three different cancers directly related to exposure. Daddy had two of those cancers.
He did not become bitter. He always kept his spirits up. He never wanted to be anything but a soldier. He died 18 months later and the flag that draped his coffin was put away. He was 56.
Memorial Day is not just a three-day weekend for some of us. It is a day to honor our dead. Even those from an unpopular war.

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