Medals, Praise, and a Lifetime of Guilt
Veterans’ Day was abundant with moving stories about the men and women who experienced both extreme bravery and lasting trauma. In wars prior to the 1980s, there was almost no support for troops once they arrived home damaged by physical and psychological harms. Soldiers returned under the weight of images embedded in memory – ready to be played back in unexpected ways. They held secrets that would never be told. And so many crumbled under the weight of nightmare memories.
I wondered if this unacknowledged trauma played a role in the arc of my father’s life and, by extension, my mother’s and, inclusively, that of my brother and me. What would our lives have been like had he returned as a veteran with memories to be shared? If he’d been able to tell us about how he won his Silver and Bronze stars and the other badges of heroism that now sit in a velvet box tucked into my dresser drawer. Maybe he’d have been set free of the need for alcohol. Not have sought the company of other women.
But, though he fought for freedom in two wars, he came back in the shackles of memories that would never be erased. That, like iron rusting over time, one day became so weak it couldn’t support the weight of WWII and the Korean War.
I never really knew my dad – but have a handful of memories of his physical self: A tall man with dark curly hair climbing the stairs of our apartment in Chamberlain, South Dakota. He’d been a watchmaker at the local Wall Drug Store. There’d been a fire in the building, and he rescued a little suitcase with a sweet white lamb on the front for me. I was about four years old. That memory, and then one from much later, after he was banished from our lives in Minnesota and came for a brief visit. I was maybe six years old. He had a big 1950s sedan, took me for a short ride, and let me sit on his lap and steer. There was a lot of shouting and remonstrations when he returned me to my grandparents’ home, and they learned about my driving lesson. It was our last meeting for decades.
From then on, it was an occasional phone call that was strictly monitored and a series of birthday presents that kept him alive in memory and imagination. The silence and mystery surrounding this separation naturally led me to make him a hero, a savior. So much bigger than my life in a tiny, crowded house where railroad tracks across the street were the only hope of something brighter and beyond. Lying in bed, I would dream about jumping on a freight train and setting off to find him.
Twenty years later, I convinced a boyfriend to drive me south to Arkansas, and my dad. He was tucked away in a small town at the foot of the Ozarks. And when I saw him walking toward me on a dusty downtown street, those childhood visions of a savior were shattered. In the first hug of decades, I smelled alcohol on his breath. He took me to his home and a woman named Martha. The house was barely furnished. Inside the refrigerator, I found a half-empty fifth of gin and a piece of leftover hamburger. Nothing else. He and Martha left to spend the night at the American Legion Club. I spent the night on a mattress on the floor, and the next morning, before he was awake, I fled.
But that first visit led to more phone calls and, eventually, the news that he’d stopped drinking. I tried again. With my toddler son, we flew east from Sacramento to near Noel, Missouri, and were met by my dad and Martha. He drove a big gray, windowless van. My son and I sat on folding chairs in the back with an overweight dog at our feet. Martha tried to be friendly, but I could tell that we were unwelcome.
We spent a couple of nights at the house he’d moved to after leaving the city where the Legion bar was his second home. On the third night of our visit, he settled into a tattered blue easy chair. An unfiltered cigarette hung from his lips and made the air thick. He was not the father I’d created. His shoulders were rounded, his hair was sparse and white, but his eyes – they were still the bright blue I’d remembered. He picked up a satin box from the side table and slowly opened it. Inside were medals – a Purple Heart, a couple of distinguished service medals, ribbons, and, wrapped in a velvet cloth, a Silver Star and Bronze Star. He said he’d been on the landing at Normandy. No details. He told me that I “wouldn't want to know. It’s all in the past.”
With those words, I realized he’d spent his entire life there, in the past, after the wars, still fighting them. The life-altering events that led to the blue box in his hands were daily companions that he’d tried to drive away with drinks and the comfort of women who didn’t know or love him. I knew he would take that loneliness and pain with him to his grave. Two years later, I got his last call. He had cancer. Bad. Throat cancer. And, no, he assured me, it wasn’t from smoking. His doctor told him that. It was just a month later that he was laid to rest in the Veterans Cemetery in Fayetville. Martha didn’t want me there. I didn’t go.
Ironically, so many veterans who are lauded with medals and praise, harbor guilt and responsibility for acts we call heroism. I’ll never know what my dad did to walk through the rest of his life as a haunted hero. Clearly, commendations and medals can’t heal such deeply embedded wounds. I’m thankful that today, the military offers counseling and support to soldiers suffering from battlefield trauma. There is a chance they won’t carry their burdens for a lifetime, as did the dad I never knew.
Thanks for spending your time with me - and for the notes I receive from some of you- know that I save them like little treasures, which they are. I hope you are gearing up for our coming Thanksgiving holiday and will be able to enjoy it safely among family and friends. Please let me know your thoughts and ideas - firstname.lastname@example.org