By Reba Phelps
While my family is known to be open and honest about every minor detail there were still some things we never discussed while we were coming up. Some things were just never questioned. We knew our family history. But, reflecting back I cannot distinguish if we were too busy being children and cramming as much fun and foolishness as we could into our daily routine or did we have a gut feeling that told us not to go there. Whatever the case we never ever asked my father about his experience while he served during the Vietnam War.
While my father was a proud member of the United States Navy and a Veteran of the Vietnam War he absolutely never spoke of it.
He was a very quiet Veteran. He had all of 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. He talked about how pretty San Diego was while he was stationed there and traveling to Hawaii.
We were in the comfort zone just knowing what we knew and didn’t bother to delve deeper into his military actions until my oldest daughter decided she needed more details and my lack of knowledge of the subject matter was completely unacceptable.
One weekend we decided to meet for lunch and this particular family lunch originated like many others. A few text messages were exchanged with family to see if anyone had lunch plans. A few more text messages debating the cuisine and location of our lunch. Once this was settled our clan descended upon a local restaurant in Natchitoches.
Once we were settled in we ordered drinks and appetizers. Shortly after 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 stopped 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 properly educate Meredith, 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 and the restaurant resumed their “pre-bomb” activities he was like a fountain overflowing. He began by telling us about the recruiting process and how he was not sure they would accept him because of him losing most of the sight in his right eye due to an infection as a child. When he initially enlisted he thought he would be home every other weekend like many of the men in his town. He was totally unaware that these men just worked at Fort Polk and had uniforms. Growing up he also had many role models who joined the military. Every single one of his brothers served in a branch. He went into great detail about the communication ship he was assigned to and how he had to sleep with his leg wrapped around the chains that anchored the beds to the wall because when they hit large waves they would fall out of the bed onto the steel floor. He also told us 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 and 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 when he explained that when he and the others returned home there was no hero’s welcome. They were treated so poorly when they returned and were mostly met with protesters and very few family members. 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.
With the help of Meredith who broke the ice with her seemingly inappropriate question it has 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 serving in the United States Navy. Recently I was able to locate the information on the two ships and share that 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 30th and it always falls around Memorial Day. Every birthday that rolls 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”
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