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The Demons My Father Carried as a Vietnam Vet

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They began to trickle in to the gate area. Some in uniform, some in civilian clothes, but all carrying the tell-tale Army camouflage backpacks. They were young. Very young. Wide-eyed and willing to serve, not yet having faced the front and felt the ravages of actual battle. One was wearing a Nirvana shirt. He wasn’t even born when Nirvana still existed.

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“Please don’t let me cry on this flight.” That’s the text I shot off to my mom and three sisters as the gate area became packed with young Army men. And then entered a veteran, likely a young Vietnam Vet or perhaps Gulf War. He wore a leather vest with various Army and Harley patches. Had I not had my 7-year-old daughter with me I would have quickly made my way to the nearest bathroom to have a good cry before boarding the flight. But I couldn’t do that.

The same phrase entered my head, the one that haunts me every time I see a service member or recall my father’s time in the Army — “between me and God.” That was his mantra. He likely repeated it to himself the last 40 years of his life. I say the “last 40 years” because that’s how I think of my dad’s existence. Before the war and after. He repeated that phrase to us several times in the years and months before his death. It referred to his greatest demon, the one he met in the jungles of Vietnam, the one he would never divulge or let go of.

I thanked the young soldiers for their service and I touched the shoulder of the older veteran, thanking him for his. Any time I see an older veteran I want to tell them about my dad, how he served two years in the jungles, how he earned a bronze star for saving a boat, how he came back forever changed. But I don’t because that’s not playing by the rules. We don’t talk to strangers that way, especially in passing on an airplane. So I just settled for a touch on the shoulder or a handshake and a thank you. And I wonder what demons he’s living with.

I sat on the plane surrounded by those young men and women willing to serve our country in a way I’ve never been. I pray over them — for their protection, that they never meet the demons so many others have, and selfishly that my own children never follow in their footsteps.

We sing songs about them, tell stories about them, have parades and special days for them, but few of us will ever understand what they carry. It’s an indoctrination into a life and existence that we wouldn’t wish on our enemies. And yet our enemies carry the demons as well. That’s the result of war. Men, women, civilians — in the jungles, deserts, mountains, trenches — all must forever suffer the consequences. Some may return home with whole bodies, having escaped the physical damages of battle, yet all return fighting mental scars.

My father never revealed what happened in those jungles. He said he’d take it to his grave and he kept his promise. He did tell stories and they were graphic, something out of a high-budget war movie. I wonder what could possibly be worse. In a way, I’m thankful he never told us. I wonder if his carrying that burden on his own was a huge sacrifice he made for our family. For years I’ve regretted that I couldn’t carry it for him or with him to lessen the load, but now I realize he kept his secret because he knew it was too heavy for the rest of us. He was as brave as he was in the jungles as he was for 40 years after the demons latched on, as he was when he slipped away from us.

As I sat next to my sweet baby girl, the one who was born six weeks after my dad passed, I think of the joy she would have brought him. That day she was sporting unicorn shoes, a unicorn dress and a unicorn backpack for the trip. He would have laughed to no end over her style choices. He would have hugged and kissed her, told her he loved her, held her hand and gone to grandparent’s breakfast at her school. He would have done all the things his ghosts never let him do for his own children.

And so I prayed again — let these young soldiers find solace in their families. Let them unburden to trusted people when they need to. Let them be fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who live full, unbroken lives after their tours are done. Let them have nothing that stays just between them and God.

Follow this journey on The Trouble With Pancho & Lefty

Getty image via Bumblee_Dee

Originally published: July 29, 2019
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