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The Storm MAG
“You want to talk about the war? That's a rough topic,” my father said to me one night a few years ago on our front porch. I looked at the 57-year-old man with a gaze that went beyond usual interest. He is notorious for telling stories of his past – when he was a kid, when he was in high school. But he had never opened up about when he was 19 and went off to a foreign country to fight like so many others.
“I know,” I said.
“Most people would rather forget.” He reached into his back pocket and took out a pack of cigarettes. His eyes were already glazing over and his mind was in another place, a place I knew he hated, a place that scared him: Vietnam.
He took a deep drag of his cigarette, then nodded. “All right, then. Sit down and listen. You have to understand that this was a different time, a different era in this country. People were changing and getting new ideas, and everyone was afraid of communism and the domino theory. Everyone was divided on the issue. Do we support the war or not? – even my own friends disagreed.”
He drew on his cigarette again, and I watched his eyes. They darted from side to side, yet remained unfocused in the glare of the tobacco ember. They were taking him back to a memory of days filled with Nixon, free love, and the heavy jungle rains. He looked at the ground as he spoke.
“Was about that time that everyone was scared of the draft. I knew my number was coming. I was scared, but I didn't want to avoid it. I sat down with my dad in our garage one night and he told me, ‘Men can carry rifles, but they can also use their minds just as effectively as bullets. Be smart, boy, and keep your head down.'”
I nodded, fully engrossed in his story. He looked up to the sky, dotted with little diamonds of light. It was a clear night with a full moon; the pine trees in our front yard swayed softly in a gentle breeze. Though we sat together on the porch, he seemed distant, a narrator for a story that was almost too hard to recount.
“So I enlisted in the Army and got sent off to training. Two weeks after I signed up, I got my draft notice; I would have gone either way. I figured I might as well learn a useful trade in the service, so I became an aviation mechanic. I built, fixed, and destroyed helicopters. After boot camp, they sent me to Vietnam. I spent a whole year in what seemed like a dream. It was almost unreal … the things I saw.” His voice trailed off and he shook his head.
I nodded sympathetically. I knew this story might be too much to tell. We sat in silence while he smoked, and then I gave him a hug and went in the house. He stayed outside the rest of that evening, smoking and getting lost in his memories.
It was only much later – almost two years – that he told me what he had gone through. He told me in miniscule bits, avoiding too much detail. He described watching the choppers as they teetered on the brink of destruction, returning from the battlefield bullet-riddled and dripping with blood. He would clean up the mess and listen to the stories and screams. Friends of his left on those choppers, and not all of them came back. Some days, he'd be recruited as a stand-in door gunner on the helicopters. He told me of the many dark shapes he fired at, and how they fired back.
I asked, “Do you still think about it? Does the memory haunt you?”
He nodded. “I wouldn't say haunt. It took me a while to put it in the back of my mind, and it's always been there.” He tapped his head, then removed the railroad hat that I'd rarely seen him without. Turning it over, he showed me where a pin was stuck – a pin decorated with the colors and symbols of the Vietnam War. “See,” he said, tapping the pin, “it's always back there.”
I never saw him the same way again. I look at him now and see a towering icon of bravery. He is a citizen who, like many others, answered the call of duty: a man who did not have to fight, who did not have to experience these horrible things.
But he did. And he wasn't alone.
War is like one big horrible storm. The rain comes pouring down and the darkness surrounds us. Who do we call to build that levee? Who do we ask to sacrifice their time – and sometimes their lives – to keep us safe? Good men and women step up to the challenge and walk into that storm, filled with fear and hope, and create that protective wall. They do it for us: the children of the nation, those who are unable to accept the challenge. For our safety, they put themselves in danger.
And we owe them a thank you.
We owe it to these veterans who venture into distant lands with a rifle and a purpose. They all deserve a handshake and a sincere “thank you.” I sometimes wonder about them – the veterans, like my father, who wore their nation's colors proudly – do they fully understand our appreciation? I hope so; I hope they know that words cannot equal the sacrifice they have made.
But how does a person thank a veteran? Hold a special ceremony? Donate money for those who return from war disabled? Does it require a sacrifice from the community to match their struggles? Or could this appreciation be transmitted with a handshake and a verbal “thank you”? How does a person do a veteran justice?
The night my father confided his memories, I was overcome with appreciation. I wish I had acted on it. I wish I had shaken his hand. I wish I had looked him in the eye. I wish I had said, “Thank you, Dad, for all you've done.” I would have, if I had known how much it would have meant to him. He would have asked for nothing more. I wish I had; perhaps then he would understand a mere fraction of the gratitude I have for him and all veterans.
The veterans who have defended this country, who have walked into that storm and against all odds built that levee to protected us from the waters of danger, who stood their ground in the face of death – these icons of freedom and sacrifice need to know just how grateful we are. If not for them, I might not be here to write this.
To the veterans, I say thank you. You are respected, you are appreciated, you are loved, and you will never be forgotten.