The Price a Veteran Pays

The impact of war is often measured by the number of lives lost or dollars spent, but those measures don’t tell the whole story.  The three months my father spent in Vietnam altered the course of his life and have affected the lives of everyone he has known since that time.

In the late 1960s, my father was a troubled teenager.  He had been expelled from Northeast Catholic High School in Philadelphia months before he was supposed to graduate.  His father had to intervene and beg the school to let him get his degree.  Following this, in an effort to make his family proud, he volunteered to join the U.S. Army and go to Vietnam.  He volunteered at a time when many men his age were drafted involuntarily and when some felt it was more honorable to flee the country than fight in the war.  He did it because he felt he could redeem himself in the eyes of his family.

In Vietnam, he served in a mobile infantry unit.  He was part of a small 3-4 man crew that operated a Track, a small armored vehicle out of which he would fire mortar rounds to attack the enemy.*  One day during an exercise, my father was accidentally shot three times by the gun mounted atop the Track.  The three bullets entered his body about midway up the left side of his torso.  Two of the bullets passed all the way through him.  The third bullet did not.  It ricocheted off bone, tore through his intestines and testicles and ultimately lodged in his right hip.

He was not expected to live.

The Army flew his father out to the hospital in Japan where he had been transported.  His father was flown out because he was not expected to survive.  This would not be the last time my father beat the odds.  His was eventually transferred to a military hospital in New Jersey; his days in combat were now over.

He's wounded in Vietnam and the paper can't even bother to get his name right, but hey, he got to meet Miss New Jersey.

Sadly, the Army would not award my father a Purple Heart because his wounds were suffered in a friendly fire incident.

From that day forward, my father’s life was altered by the horrors he experienced and the pain he dealt with every day.  The bullet that lodged in his hip would remain there until the early 1980s.  The bullet caused him to develop osteomyelitis, a bone infection, in his right hip joint.  The only solution he was offered was to entirely remove the hip joint.  The entire ball and socket that comprise the joint were removed.  His right leg was now several inches shorter than the left with the top of the femur now just rubbing against his pelvic bone stabilized only by scar tissue.  He was not expected to walk again, let alone walk without crutches.

For the majority of my life, he walked with only the support of a cane.

Every day of his life was now filled with pain.  His hip hurt.  His knees hurt.  His back hurt.  For the rest of his life, he would take pain pills, not Tylenol, but Tylenol #3 with Codiene or Darvocet or other equivalent medications.  Eventually, he built up such a tolerance to the medications that he would take them by the handful, 5-6 at a time, every 4 hours.

The wounds he had would cause him to be medically retired when he was in his early 30s.  He was considered 100% medically disabled and would not work full time.  It was too painful for him to sit at a desk all day.  With this, he would now spend everyday at home alone while my mom would work and I was off at school.  He was isolated.

He tried to pass the time with hobbies – he built models of clipper ships, fished, collected stamps, and several other pursuits – but he was isolated with only his thoughts and memories of war for company.  Before he had been medically retired, he turned to vices, cigarettes and alcohol, to help him forget his physical and mental pain.  The loneliness he now felt due to his retirement only exacerbated his troubles with those vices.

My father tried to reach out to a veteran’s organization in order to connect with others in his situation.  At that time, Vietnam Veterans were not respected, they were still considered baby killers and murderers, not soldiers, and the World War II vets would not except him.  The loneliness he experienced would turn into depression and with that he sunk into the grips of alcoholism.

He lived his life through a haze of strong pain medications and alcohol and it caused strain on the entire family.  He had already had one failed marriage after his experience in the war and his relationship with my mom would be a constant test of perseverance for both of them as they fought through his struggles.

The alcoholism caused several incidents that I remember vividly.  The most memorable of which was one Christmas Eve, when I had to have been about ten or twelve years old.  He started drinking wine early in the evening while wrapping presents and at one point left to pick up my step brother and sister from his ex-wife’s house.  I went out to the car with him and he asked me to go back and get something for him.  I remember having him promise me that he would wait for me, but of course he didn’t.  Hours passed and he didn’t come back.  I was sent to bed and my mom called her sisters asking for help.  I remember sitting in the window of my second floor bedroom, waiting for him.  Eventually, my uncles found him passed out on the side of the road and I remember coming out of my room, very late that night, to see them dragging him in.  He needed help.

He would be in and out of rehab several times.  Those programs addressed the alcoholism, but they never addressed what really drove it.  It wasn’t until the late 80s/early 90s that Vietnam veterans were more socially accepted.  My father started opening up about his experiences in the war.  He would start sharing his war experiences with my grandfather, a World War II veteran himself.  He was also finally awarded a Purple Heart by the Army and he joined the Military Order of the Purple Heart.  He found friends and enjoyed the camaraderie of people who had been through similar events.  He was able to quit drinking.

For several years, he led as normal a life as he would ever have.  For those years, he felt like a person again.

Always the charmer.

Once my mom died, he fell back into bad habits.  After decades of smoking and drinking, he developed cancer.  Two years ago after several rounds of treatments, trying to once again beat the odds, his heart gave out.  He died weeks before his 60th birthday.

A couple of months before he died, I asked him why he had volunteered to go to Vietnam.  That’s when he told me the story of wanting to make his family proud.

I told him he did.

And in doing so he paid a heavy price.  My father is now buried in Arlington National Cemetery with my mother.

I don’t tell this story looking for sympathy.  I have long ago come to grips with the effect his alcoholism had on our family and on me personally.  I want people to recognize those veterans who return from war are dealing with more than most will ever understand.  They need to be thanked and some need to be helped.

*-My apologies for any inaccurate terminology.  All of this is remembered from the stories my father told me before he passed away two years ago.

Some Words for Memorial Day

Years ago, before my thoughts were preoccupied by work and family, I used to write poetry in addition to science fiction. I still write from time to time, as evidenced by the Hutt Publishing tab, but for some reason, the poems have pretty much dried up.

I wrote this poem over a decade ago when my grandfather was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was a decorated veteran of World War II. Sadly, I could have also written it after my father’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. He was a Vietnam veteran who was critically injured in combat. I’ll tell his full story another day. Suffice it to say, he didn’t die in combat, but I think this fits well with the theme of the day.

This Folded Flag

The flag was folded
The horns sounded
A shot rang out
Tears then did fall
I strangled my thoughts
With stoic resolve
Pursing my lips
Against further emotion
Another fold of the colors
Another shot rings out
I glance to the rows
Of stone upon stone
And know how he fought
Full of pride and glory
His head raised high
Full of heartened duty
Surrounded by those
Of singular purpose
But the Earth beckoned
To return what was given
And no man has strength
To resist that call
The flag is folded
The final shot sounds
And I whisper beneath air
My wishes and hopes
But sorrow belies pride
And tugs at my heart
For though I do not speak
My thoughts cannot hide
So rest with the winds
That sound across this land
Knowing what you gave
To the children of all
And know of our pride
In all you have done
Know that I remember
With each taught fold
How you touched my life.

Raising My Girls

When my wife was pregnant with each of our children and more so with each girl we had, a lot of people assumed that I really wanted to have a baby boy.  To me though, that was never important.  I had no preference either way; I never had any preference to begin with.  To me, I still planned to share with them whatever I could, to show them my interests and my dreams, and share in their interests, hopes, and dreams.

Now, that’s not to say they don’t naturally gravitate towards certain things that I am more than happy for them to do on their own or with their mom.  The first toy that each of them played with was typically a baby doll and a baby stroller.  We also own way more Barbie dolls and Disney Princess merchandise then I could have ever imagined.  But in that dress-up box, just below the Rapunzel dress is a Clone Trooper costume.  In addition to a Barbie playhouse, we also have a Dragon Castle.  We have Barbie’s corvette, but also a Jurassic Park electronic T-Rex.  We have GeoTrax train sets, Legos, Matchbox Cars, Star Wars toys, Transformers, and Nerf guns in addition to the Step 2 Kitchenette and Diner.

I want them to have the same opportunities as any other kid, regardless of being a boy or girl.  We’ve signed up our oldest to play on mixed tee-ball and soccer teams.  There was one instance, during the tee-ball practices, where I saw one of the other dads expect less from my oldest just because she was a girl.  I was a bit surprised at how sensitive I was to that.  It sounds odd, but I talked to her about doing a better job and trying harder, because there was no reason for her to not be as good as any of the other kids out there.

My girls also like to play video games.  The first game I played with my oldest was Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii.  She loved to sit on my lap and be the helper, collecting different things through the game, while I played through each level.  Now, she and her slightly younger sister like to play through games.  I’ve read several articles that talk about the rise in “girl gamers”, but that’s a term I hate.  Yes, my kids are girls who like to play video games, but they’re no different than any other kid who plays games.  Yes, Disney Princess games interest them more than racing games, but they also happily play Lego Star Wars or Wii Sports or Super Mario games.

About a year ago, I introduced my oldest, now 6, to the old 1985 Transformer Cartoons, and I gave her a box of my old toys.  Yes, the cartoons are cheesy, silly, and devoid of much of a redeeming story, but she likes to watch them.  My middle daughter likes to watch the Clone Wars cartoon and the Star Wars movies with me.  She’ll often ask for me to play Star Wars with her.

Granted, our approach to play is different.  When they play dinosaurs, the dinosaur family goes on vacation; when I play with them, the T-Rex is on a rampage.  For them, the Transformers are taking the kids to school; for me, it’s all about robot battles.  So I recognize that there are plenty of psychological differences in how we view the world.  This isn’t about people being the same; this is about people giving them the same opportunities.

My wife feels that the girls want to play with Star Wars, Transformers toys, and the like because they want to do something with me.  For me, I want them to play with whatever they want and they aren’t limited to dolls or things that are pink just because of their gender.  Will this help them be better people when they grow up?  I don’t really know, but I do know I will have given them an opportunity to be interested in whatever they want, not what someone else wants them to be interested in.

Their role and their place in society is not defined by their gender; their role is whatever they choose it to be.  Am I confusing their gender?  Will they be psychologically scarred by this?  I doubt it.  They do plenty of “traditional” girl things.  I’ve just exposed them to things that they might not normally gravitate toward.

So what is the end result of my influence on my girls? In answer to that, I present this video of my daughter as Darth Vader.

For My Mom and My Wife

A few words on the two most important women in my life (though three more are a close second) who have helped me become the man I am today.

My mom was an incredible, self-made woman.  The oldest of three sisters, she overcame quite a bit in her adult life and taught me much along the way.  My biological father abandoned us when I was two when we were living in California far from the rest of her family.  My father left one day while my mom was at work, leaving me home alone to fend for myself.  After that, she picked up the pieces and we then moved back east to my grandparents’ house in New Jersey.  A couple of years later, she met and married my adopted father, a disabled Vietnam veteran.  He was a good man, with his own tragic story which I’ll save for another time.

I think I hear John Denver cuing up a song...

My mom fostered my interests in all things science and science fiction.  She took me to see Star Wars when I was two and then bought early copies of them on videotape so I could watch them over and over. She would buy me any toy that helped foster my creativity from Lego to Lincoln Logs to Star Wars toys to Robotix; there was nothing she wouldn’t get for me.  She introduced me to video games, her favorite was the Legend of Zelda on the original Nintendo, and would bring me in to finish the hard parts.

My mom also taught me a lot about relationships.  She taught me that a marriage required hard work, patience, understanding, and perseverance if it was to last.  She guided my adopted father through his recovery from alcoholism and his struggles with the trauma of war.

My mom showed me that you could succeed and excel in life through hard work and dedication.  Professionally, she remade herself as needed.  She started as a draftsmen, then moved to retail for a while, before returning to a technical field and becoming a self-educated civil engineer.  She eventually found herself as the second-in-charge at a small civil engineering company in the Philadelphia Suburbs.

My mom also passed on to me a love of animals.  She never met an animal that she wouldn’t try to take care of, be it cat or dog or bird or deer or even skunk.  She fed them, cared for them, and protected them as best she could.

My mom was extremely proud of my career at NASA.  She loved to call me from her car on the way home from work and talk to me about the job.  She thought it was amazing when I traveled to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia.  I don’t remember seeing her more excited when she came to visit and I was able to give her a tour of Johnson Space Center.

Hello

My wife is the mother of three daughters.  She encourages them in every way.  Be it through dance or gymnastics or reading or trips to the zoo or museum, she tries to grow them any way she can.  She sets no limits for them and encourages them to try anything and everything. She emphasizes to them that they can grow up and do whatever they want to do; the only thing that limits them is their dreams.

My wife buys me video games to play with them at every opportunity.  She loves it when they sit with me to play a round of Super Mario Galaxy or we play together for Wii Party.  She wants them to enjoy the same things their Daddy does.

My wife tries to pass on to them a love of nature.  We take trips to the mountains of Colorado or visit farmland in Mississippi where she will introduce them to the outdoors, to wildlife, and to the beauty of the natural world.

My wife recognizes the moment and when something is important to my daughters, she makes sure that I am there, doing what I need to do. My wife is a tireless mom, going from appointment to appointment, place to place, store to store, wherever they need her to go.

My wife is a wonderful role model for them, intelligent, hard-working, patient, sincere, fun-loving, family loving, and kind.

The great tragedy in all this is that my oldest daughter was born on January 31, 2005 and my mom died on February 12, 2005.  The greatest sorrow I hold is that my mom never knew her grandchildren.  She would have loved them, absolutely loved them.  I can only wish that my wife and my mom would together have shown them how great a woman can be.  My wife and her mom are more than up to that task, but there are plenty of days when I dream of what might have been.