My First Hero
Without Heroes, we are all plain people and don't know how far we can go.
- Bernard Malamud
I was six when Dad went to Vietnam. While some people my age remember the 60’s for peace, love, and rock-n-roll, we were a military family and life was different for us. I remember watching the 6 o’clock news thinking in my 6-year-old way that I might catch a glimpse of my father - and, at the same time, afraid I might see him dead. It was a lot to handle for a first-grader.
Five months into his tour, dad was buried under a building that was hit by an enemy missile and collapsed. Shrapnel left a grapefruit-sized hole in the back of his leg and, after they found him and dug him out, they flew him to Japan where he spent 7 months in a hospital having surgeries and skin grafts. He never talked about the man who died on the stretcher next to him in the helicopter that airlifted them out, except to say “I was scared I’d die too,” and he didn’t speak more than a few words about what he’d been through or give us any more details until decades after the war when he was dying of cancer resulting from exposure to agent orange.
He was a strong, tall (6’7”), bigger-than-life, family man who loved us in bigger-than-life ways…and who also got angry easily - probably as a result of the trauma of war. (They didn’t talk about PTSD or traumatic brain injuries back then - but I’m certain he had them.)
He told me about his time under the rubble. “I was as quiet as I could be and didn’t holler for help for what felt like forever because I didn’t know if the Viet Cong were there.” Eventually, someone saw his foot and rescued him. I can only imagine how frightened and confused he might have been. He was probably in shock.
He also shared stuff about the hospital. “They told me I wouldn’t walk again,” he once explained, then laughed about his own stubbornness and shared that he was determined to walk despite what they said. After a while, he stopped using a cane and his limp became so slight that most people didn’t notice it - or how it affected him every day of his life.
Dad struggled with hearing loss from the bombing and, even with the hearing aides he wore later in life, he had trouble hearing in large crowded places like restaurants. It frustrated him that he couldn’t participate in conversations because he couldn’t hear what was being said and he eventually learned to read lips which helped some.
Every day of his life, he lived with the injuries of war but I never, ever heard him complain. He was proud to have served his country and it wouldn’t have occurred to him to mention the Purple Heart that lived in a plain hinged black box in the bottom drawer of his nightstand.
Dad was a Hero and a Veteran.
Today, I honor those who gave their lives for our country and those who came home to live with the injuries and losses of war in strong, proud, silent ways. My brother, my son, my father, many dear friends, family members serving now.
May this Veteran’s Day remind us of the life-changing, devastating costs of war — and what true patriotism looks like.
I love you, Dad. Thanks for your service!