How do I answer a question like that? It totally caught me off guard and I did not want to say the wrong thing. That was the most profound question I have ever been asked and I learned more about my father with that one question than some people learn about theirs in a lifetime.
As a college writing assignment I was asked to write about any hero in American history. While most of my peers chose traditional figures as the subject of their papers, I decided I wanted to write about my father's experiences in Vietnam nearly thirty years earlier. Since there were no guidelines for the paper other than a broad topic I choose to do something completely different. I have always been proud of my father and I figured this would be a perfect way to demonstrate it.
As most children of Vietnam Veterans will tell you, there is, or at least was, a general awkwardness about discussing the war. It was a subject that we were all aware of but rarely discussed. I saw first hand the effects of the war at an early age but I was too young to understand the deep psychological wound that was still near the surface. Simple things like a car backfiring or a balloon popping was enough for my father to practically collapse to the ground. Everyone's festive 4th of July firework displays were celebrated in our house with the windows closed and the television on just to drowned out some of the noise. Playfully scaring my father was out of the question. I always noticed these things but I never truly understood them until I was asked that question.
My father would always answer my questions about Vietnam but he would never bring the subject up voluntarily. When I told him I wanted to write a paper about him I wasn't quite sure what he thought about it but he graciously agreed to help. I believe that my timing could not have been any more perfect. As it turns out my father had spoken publicly for the first time about his experiences at a local community college only a month before I presented him with my idea for my paper. He felt he was finally ready to talk about some of his experiences and my paper provided me with the opportunity to really listen. We went through his scrapbook and he explained things that I was completely oblivious about. I found out that his nickname was "Pops" because at the age of 23 he was the oldest member of his squad. He was even able to laugh a little about trying to intentionally fail his draft physical. He also had certificates for expert marksmanship from basic training which seemed bizarre to me given his temperament and anti-gun beliefs that I had always heard him talk about.
Using all of the information he provided me I wrote the paper because I wanted to, not because it was an assignment. My professor was so touched by paper that she asked me if he would be interested in speaking to our class. I was skeptical about even asking him but I knew that he had just made a similar presentation. I decided to consult my mother first as I knew she could tell me honestly if he would be interested. She assured me that she thought he was ready and that doing presentations was part of his own healing process. I nervously asked him if he was interested and two weeks later he drove two and a half hours to my college to speak to my class. I think I learned more about his experiences from that hour and a half lecture than the previous twenty something years I lived with my parents. He gave detailed descriptions of what some of his missions were, how they setup perimeter mines at night, the type of equipment that he carried, and the overall experience of being in a foreign country fighting a war thousands of miles away from my mother who was pregnant with my brother at the time. The descriptions were very precise and informative not only for me but also the other students in my class.
After the class had ended he took me out to dinner, which is a big treat for a poor college student, before he drove back home. We discussed his presentation and he asked if I had any other questions. It was the first time I can remember him being so open about it. I remember as a child my father took my entire family to see Platoon when it was in the movie theatre. I couldn't have been more than six or seven at the time and I remember one scene I actually started crying because it was so violent. I was totally incapable of understanding what I was watching. I think that was my father's first attempt to show us what he went through. I remember visiting the Wall with my father and seeing him cry for the first time. He found the names of the men he once led as a Sergeant. Shortly after his tour had ended the men from his squad were killed and he felt that if he was still there he could have prevented their deaths. Years and years later I was having dinner with my father talking very openly about everything.
My brother and sister read my paper and I remember them telling me that they learned a lot about my father just by reading it. Since my siblings are several years older that I am my father was not able to open up to them in the same way he was with me and I cherish that. Timing was everything and luckily it was on my side. My brother suggested that I turn my paper into a website since I was a web developer by this time. I thought it would be great to reach other people and proudly tell my father's story to anyone willing to read it.
When I told my father of my plans for the website he asked me a single question I will never forget. Just thinking about it now sends chills up and down my arms. He said he was glad that I expressed such an interest and that I was proud of him but he wanted to make sure I was aware of one thing before I made the website. He asked me, "You know I've killed people right?". I remember sitting there for what felt like hours trying to think of the right thing to say but in reality it was less than the length of a stop light. I ended up telling him that I assumed he did but I did not know for sure. He wanted to make sure I knew all of the things he had done that he himself was not proud of before I made a hero out of him. That one question told me more about the emotional baggage that he has been forced to carry for all of these years than any textbook possibly could. I can only imagine the courage it took for him to even ask that question. It was almost thirty years in the making.
That question has not been brought up since, but it helped me understand all of the little things I experienced as the son of a Vietnam Veteran.