As I sat at a stoplight behind a car with a Retired Military license plate, I tried unsuccessfully to imagine my father making such an obvious declaration of his service. I was raised with the awareness that my dad was a Vietnam veteran, but other than a tucked-away photo album and the occasional appearance of his dress blue hat in our dress-up box, there were no visible reminders of his time as an Army officer.
Not that there weren’t any reminders at all. No matter how much he tried to forget the experience, nightmares and post-trauma responses were unavoidable. He’d joke about the way he jumped out of bed or sprang up to shield my mother when an ambulance siren wailed in the middle of the night, but it didn’t completely cover the fact that some part of his mind could never forget the terror of war.
After drawing an ill-fated lottery number, my father had decided to enlist and go through officer candidate school rather than wait for the inevitable call of the draft. At all of 23, he was the old man of his unit and had more training than most of the soldiers around him, but he was still a recent college graduate from a town of 2500 people who hadn’t been outside the state of Minnesota until his senior year of high school. When he was deployed overseas, he left a 21-year-old wife behind. Now that those ages are closer to my children’s than my own, I can’t help thinking of them all as kids, both my parents and their peers, which makes the difficulties they endured that much more excruciating to imagine.
For as long as I can remember, the sight of soldiers in uniform has made me tear up. I’m especially susceptible to this weakness at airports, when it’s clear that the serviceperson in question is heading away from home rather than toward it. I always thought this was just overactive empathy, but I’ve realized lately, with our military now in multiple conflicts round the globe, that I see my father in every set of eyes that has seen war up close. I know that the lives they led before deployment are over, and that the rest of their days will be touched by the time they serve. Like my dad, some of them may have chosen the military as the best of several less-than-ideal options, and their path afterward may not look much brighter. With the number of reservists in action, we have an older, wiser military than in my father’s era, but I still feel there’s a sense of childlike innocence and safety that’s irreversibly extracted by foreign combat. We send lots of kids to war, but we never get any back.
The very definition of a veteran is someone who has prevailed through trials and gained experience, and my compassion for our troops certainly doesn’t imply the perception of weakness or damage. As much as I wish he hadn’t had to learn them in such a brutal way, the lessons my father took from his time in Vietnam are still valuable, and despite the losses and sacrifices he withstood, he moved forward into a happy, successful, and loving future with his wife and children. Just as his own father had done after earning a Purple Heart in World War II. There may not have been obvious symbols of his service around our house as I was growing up, but my father remains my greatest reminder of the courage of every veteran, not just to sacrifice one’s life, but to face the life that comes next.