Growing up with a Vietnam Veteran as a Dad

dad during vietnam

I became aware of what being a veteran meant at a very young age.  Coming from a big military family, I enjoyed listening to all their stories.  Even if some were a bit embellished, and they were winking at me while telling them.  The picture above is my dad while in Japan getting ready to return from Vietnam.  My father was drafted right out of high school by the US Army, and sent to Vietnam with the other young men at the time.

His father would talk with me for hours about his time overseas during WWII, and I did many school papers on his experiences.  I would plop down on the couch beside him, and we would immediately get started with the personalized history lesson.  Note: It never really happened as the school history books claim…history books have definitely been whitewashed.

The following story happened when I was in the third grade.

I vividly remember Dad poking the fire in the stove one night.  I leaned down and tried to give him a hug while I cheerfully said, “Happy Veteran’s Day”.  This is the exact moment I knew the Vietnam War was different than the others.

He looked up at me, and his eyes had this wide intense and scary look to them.  He then barked, “Don’t ever say that to me”.  Of course, the light from the fire on his face made it even scarier.  The look in his eyes, well…it is hard to explain exactly how they came across.  At that young age, I saw my father look straight through me with a fiery vacant and piercing hate.  My Dad was not behind those ice blue daggers, and I instantly knew it.  We were inches apart, and I started crying as I got back up.  He returned his gaze to the fire, and didn’t come back to the present for quite a while.

My mother immediately told him that I didn’t know, and that I was trying to be sweet.  He never responded back to her.  She then told me about the Vietnam War, and also how Dad was treated once he returned home.  Of course, she came in my room and told me this, not in front of him.  I have been on the receiving end of that look since, but I also have tried to avoid situations where it would come out.  I would just leave the situation when it would return- even if I got in trouble by walking off.  I wouldn’t say Happy Veteran’s Day to him again until 2009.

I felt it was about time for me to try again.  My brother convinced him to go to the VA Hospital for old war  injuries, and he surprisingly likes our VA.  You read that correctly, he finally went to take care of injuries decades after the war.

I called Dad up in 2009, and told him, “I don’t care if you get mad at me, I am telling you Happy Veteran’s Day”.  I told him how much I loved him, and how proud I was of his service.  He didn’t understand why I thought he would get mad at me, and I recalled that night back in the 80’s.  He apologized, and said he has no recollection of me even saying that to him – much less his reaction.  Why would he remember?

That wasn’t my Dad who responded back to the younger me.  He thanked me, and apologized once again.  I am crying at this moment, and told him he had no reason to say he was sorry.  Just writing this, I am tearing up because it was such an emotional conversation for both of us.

Looking back, I clearly see symptoms of PTSD throughout his life.  Things that I thought were normal, later to find not the case.  I won’t go into detail for my father’s privacy.  I still do not talk about the war with him, but my brother (also a veteran) says that he has started opening up to him.  Which makes me happy.  My mom told me what she knew of his service, and just that is brutal.

  daddad's bunk

Dad worked as a search and rescue paramedic and fireman when he came home.  He also went back to racing stock cars.  The above picture is what he had at the head of his bunk while in the service.  Family photos….and Richard Petty, Ralph Earnhardt, and others dirt track racing.

dad in 77

He is definitely a wild mountain man, especially in his younger days.  As he has aged, he has become a wise mountain man.  Don’t get me wrong though, he still has the wild in him!  Maybe this is where I get my wild streak.

Growing up, my male friends would refer to him as Obi-Wan.  I think he secretly liked his nickname.  I wish I was able to get him to dress as Obi-Wan for Halloween.

Dad

I love my father immensely.  It amuses me to see the fear in his eyes when he was holding me in my baby pictures.  He had no idea what to do with raising a daughter.  He was a strict father and pretty old school when it came to gender roles.  I couldn’t date until I was 16, never have a boy in my room under his roof, cutting my hair was frowned upon, wasn’t allowed to work on the tobacco farm, I did the inside chores (my brother did outside chores), and we all worked in the garden.  I think he wanted what most parents want for their kids- to do better than they did in life.  He always encouraged my love for family history.

He has taught me to always remember how I was raised.  In fact, he told me many times during my wild days to, “act how I was raised”.  It makes me laugh now, because he was way wilder than I was…I think.  He also told me many times to “stay in your lane, and your lane only” while trying to teach me to drive.

For a father who was lost on what a daughter would be interested in doing, he did a great job of teaching me a wide spectrum of things.  I spent many days at the airport, just watching aircraft take off and land; he would explain how to do any job that he was working on at the time.  When I would visit him at the race shop, he would take me around and explain everything to me about what was being built and why.  He would bring me to the shop to watch them test the engines.  He would just load me into the car whenever he did something.  It was fine with me, because he did some pretty cool stuff! 

It makes me laugh because he is so dated in his thinking of gender roles for women.  When I graduated college, he didn’t understand why I didn’t get a secretary or elementary teaching job.  In his mind, that is what females should do for employment.  Those are great professions for those who want to have those as careers, but not for me.  Plus, I despise the term secretary.

He showed me a world of adventure, outdoors, and service-orientated careers, like firemen, medics, and policemen.  It is amusing to me that the daughter he raised is still expected to be the stereotypical southern woman.  It used to aggravate me, but not anymore.  He isn’t going to change in his thinking, and I’m not either….so I just find the humor in it.

da and me airport airport2

Happy Veteran’s Day to my wonderful father, who really did a superb job raising an independent and intelligent daughter.  I am just as proud of his military service, his accomplishments, and his crazy life experiences as he is in mine.  I think the best qualities of him include his desire to always be kind to people, and to take up for those who can’t do it for themselves.

His experiences in, and after, Vietnam shaped the rest of his life.  It shaped my life, too.  Having him as a father has given me a lot of patience with veterans.  I know everyone experiences war differently, and it also attaches to each soul differently.  Yet saying that, I find similarities.  I would see these men who were the same age as my own father in the long term Community Living Center at the VA Hospital.  Some were cranky, some still dirty old men, and some so quiet that I never heard them speak- and I was there everyday.

I had confidence interacting with them due to my father.  The silence, unexplained anger and hatred, extreme mood swings, walking the perimeter of the house/campsite for hours after dark, alcoholism and the act of hiding it, waking up in the night from nightmares, intensity… the list could go on and on, but I would watch Dad experience all of these. I was able to be a better caregiver for those men and women, because of my unconditional love and compassion for my father.  I am not claiming to understand any of it, because I don’t.  Hopefully, I am explaining this to where it makes sense.  I am fully aware my attempt to write about this is probably a jibber jabbering mess.

I am sorry that Dad had to go though those experiences.  The scars my father carries created something good within me, and I truly thank him for this.

Thank you for your service, Dad.

vietnam

5 thoughts on “Growing up with a Vietnam Veteran as a Dad

  1. I love your compassion for the things you don’t understand in your dad. I don’t have much first-hand exposure and Viet Nam vets always scared me for their unpredictable moods. Hopefully we’re better at treating PTSD today.

  2. I loved your story. Right now I am working on a book about my father and growing up with a Vietnam Vet and how his PTSD had affected our family. back in 2010 I was diagnosed with depression anxiety and secondary traumatic stress syndrome. I’m hoping my book -like your story can shed some light on families who are dealing with PTSD and that they too become affected by it. My father had just passed and I’m going to dedicate the book to him and my mother. I wish you much love and light.
    Loretta

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