By Reba Phelps
While my family is known to be open and honest about every minor detail there’s some things we never discussed growing up. Some things were just never questioned. We knew our family history.
Reflecting back I can’t distinguish if we were too busy being children or if we had a gut feeling telling us not to go there. Whatever the case, we never asked my father about his Vietnam War experience.
While my father was a proud member of the US Navy and a Veteran of the Vietnam War he absolutely never spoke of it.
He was a very quiet Veteran. He had all the memorabilia. He had the military id card. He had the yearbook with all of his peer’s photos. He had the basic stories of where he was stationed and how long he stayed on the ship. He could go through the yearbook and pick out his closest friends. My dad even had jokes about his military stay.
When he was in a bad mood or feeling impatient he would say, “my agent orange is acting up today.” We always laughed.
We never bothered to delve deeper into his military actions until my oldest daughter decided she needed more details and my lack of knowledge was completely unacceptable.
One weekend we met for a family lunch, which started like many others. A few text messages exchanged with family to see if anyone had lunch plans. A few more text messages debating the cuisine and location. Once settled, our clan descended upon a Natchitoches restaurant.
Shortly after ordering drinks and appetizers we exchanged a few pleasantries my daughter dropped a Texas size bomb and brought the whole table (and half the restaurant) to a screeching halt. She said, “So Pappaw, how many people did you have to kill while you were in Vietnam?”
The silence was deafening. You could have heard a pin drop. It seemed as though the tables around us paused and the waitresses waited to see what happened. Our whole table, including my new stepmom, stopped visiting and looked at me. Being the child’s parent I was about to plunge into rescue and education mode. I planned on apologizing for her outburst and discussing the proper etiquette of addressing a Veteran and their memoirs.
Before I could, my father replied, “It was so many I couldn’t keep up with it.”
Obviously he was being humorous, but after he broke the ice, he was like a fountain overflowing. He began by telling us about the recruiting process. He wasn’t sure they’d accept him because he lost most of the sight in his right eye after a childhood infection.
Growing up he had many role models who joined the military. Every single one of his brothers served in a branch.
While assigned to a communication ship, he had to sleep with his leg wrapped around the chains anchoring the beds to the wall because when they hit large waves they would fall out of the bed onto the steel floor.
When he arrived in Vietnam they were nearing a shore where a battle was taking place and he could feel the gunshot vibrations on the ship. A jet flew over them that had been struck and he still remembers what the heat felt like from that moment.
He shared that his deployment was for Westpac and Vietnam.
While we hung on every word that was finally coming forth from the silent man we lived with, our hearts were broken for him. He explained that when he and the others returned home there were no hero’s welcomes. They were treated so poorly and were mostly met with protesters.
He did go on to share that it touches his soul to see our Troops being so loved and welcomed when they come home. He can rarely watch it on TV without shedding a tear.
Meredith’s seemingly inappropriate question opened the door for many conversations with my father that included the name of the two ships he traveled on and many other details that make up the beauty and history of his time served in the US Navy. Recently I located the information on the two ships and shared it with him. It brought back a multitude of memories and I think just enough time has passed where he can truly reflect on his experience and appreciate that God spared his life during that time and enabled him to come back home to continue the journey that created a whole family.
My father’s birthday is May 30 and it always falls around Memorial Day. Every birthday that roles around for him is a complete blessing and a reminder of the military men and women who so willingly gave their lives so that we can enjoy the freedoms we have.
“Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle; My Lovingkindness and my fortress, My stronghold and my deliverer, My shield and he in whom I take refuge, who subdues my people under me”