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

One last party with Uncle Bob

 Uncle Bob, 1955

My favorite picture of Uncle Bob from his Army days during the 1950’s.

The barrel says, “Explosive Liquid”.

This is the obituary I was asked me to write for Uncle Bob.  It was a lot of fun to write and talking with his kids to get the stories correct was pretty humorous.  This family knows how to celebrate life.  Even though he was in bed, he still sent his daughters to the kitchen to make Italian cookies so he could inspect them.  It wasn’t until the third batch that he finally approved of their abilities with carrying on the tradition.  They would bring the cookies up to his room at different points in the process, and he would send them back down to try again.  It was a week of family coming in and out, even his Cardiologist came a few nights to celebrate.  I thought that was very touching.

The family black & white movies were put on the TV, photo albums were out, and a dining table full of food lasted the entire week.  Even though he was in his bed, he asked who came and for them to stay- and come tomorrow too!  People took turns watching the sporting events in his room with him.  During a WVU game, he pointed up and said he would help them win when he gets there.

You could see and feel the love within the house, it was quite magical.  This was the most beautiful death, and I hope I am as lucky as Uncle Bob when it is my time.

Robert Allen Marra, of Bridgeport, WV, who was known as Bob, passed away on Friday, November 21, 2014 while celebrating his life with his family and loved ones around him. He was born on August 1, 1933, in Brownton. He was the son of the late Frank and Maria (Mary) Morasco Marra, who immigrated to WV from San Giovanni, Italy.

He was preceded in death by his wife of 37 years, Constance Minard Marra, in 1998.

His surviving family members include his son Robert A. Marra II and wife Diana of Bridgeport, WV, daughters Mary Rose Marra Sirianni and husband George of Tallahassee, Florida and Jolynn Marra, of Charleston, WV. Bob is also survived by his three older brothers, Louis “Jiggs” Marra of Flemington, WV, Joseph Marra of Manassas, VA, Sammie Marra of Bridgeport, WV and sister, Lucy Marra Grady of Bethesda, MD. He has three grandchildren, Anthony, Marra, and Ross, his companion of 15 years, Marie Whitehair of Bridgeport, WV, and many nieces and nephews whom he loved and cared for deeply.

In addition to his wife and parents, he was preceded in death by five sisters, Rose Lee Marra Tait, Daisy Marra Vukovich, Velma Marra Infante, Anna Marra Amoroso, and Virginia Marra Meyers.

Bob graduated from Philippi High School. He began school at West Virginia University and shortly after went to serve in the US Army, stationed at Fort Myer, VA and Aberdeen, MD. During the late 1950’s, Bob co-owned the popular Willow Beach dinner and dance club in Clarksburg, WV. He worked for his father’s coal company, Marra Coal Company. The company became the Marra Brother’s Coal Company when passed down to Bob and his brothers, where he worked until the mine closed. He officially retired from the local Labor Union in the mid 1990’s.

Bob was an avid sports fan, especially WVU and Bridgeport sports. His tailgating foods were impressive, with only his infamous apron stealing the show. He was charismatic and had a sense of humor that blended perfectly with his full of life personality. Bob attended every wedding, graduation, birthday, and sporting event that he possibly could to support and celebrate his family. Many, whether related or not, referred to him as “Uncle Bob” or “Big Bob”. His signature dance was the Tarantella, always waving his handkerchief in the air. He also enjoyed showering wedding couples with coins to orchestrate the Money Dance for good luck.

Bob loved being part of a large Italian family and enjoyed talking about his family traditions. He took great pride in knowing that his many cookies, including his pita piatas, and his hot peppers were loved by all. He was a member of All Saints Catholic Church in Bridgeport, and served as an usher for many years. Regardless of how many were sitting in the row already, Bob could always seem to seat one more.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Bob’s memory may be made to All Saints Church or People’s Hospice.

Family and friends will be received at All Saints Catholic Church, 317 E. Main Street, Bridgeport on Monday from 2:00-8:00 p.m., where the Vigil Service will be held at 7:30 p.m. A Mass of Christian Burial will be held on Tuesday, November 25 at 10:00 am with Father V. Cann as Celebrant. Interment will be in Bridgeport Cemetery, and Military Funeral Honors will be accorded.–

After reading over the obituary again, I see a few grammar mistakes and changes made by the funeral home.  My name wasn’t on the work, so I said to feel free to change anything.

When I See The Flags

After spending the last week- eight hours or more a day- with someone who is actively dying, my heart would always race right before I would turn down the hall towards their room.  Anticipating the flags to be standing proudly at the entryway of their room.

All nursing home facilities react to a resident’s death differently.  When I found out how the VA Hospital’s CLC treats their resident’s deaths, I thought it was a beautiful idea.  I hope that all of the CLC’s do the same as mine does, because it means so much to the other residents and their families, the volunteers, and the staff.

Since the CLC strives to be a family setting, rather than a scary traditional nursing home, the residents become friends.  They spend time together in the common area, as residents can go only in their own room.  The residents all can tell when someone has taken a turn for the worse.  They notice everything.  When someone is about to pass, the residents are allowed to go in their friend’s room to say a few words.

It pulls at the heart strings when I see a 90 year old resident wheel himself into another room to say goodbye to his fellow service member.

When a resident passes, the CLC stands two flags on either side of their door.  One side is the USA flag, and the other is the branch they were in while serving in our military.  I have turned the corner into hallways many times hoping to see the flags- and in the same breath- hoping not to see the flags.  Unfortunately, sometimes it can take a while for the body to shut down, and it seems that it takes too long for my friends to feel peace again.  When you witness suffering of any kind, it will create empathy that you will carry forever.  The peace I am talking about is not only physical, but also emotional.

When I do see the flags, I have had different emotions- happiness, reflection, warmth, and selfishness.

Why selfishness?  Well, in some cases I wasn’t ready to lose my friend yet!  The lovely namesake of this blog is a great example of this.  The day he passed, he was smiling and giggling at jokes.   I was happy for him to be out of pain when I saw his flags, but sad to lose a sweet friend.

The flags guard their door for several days.

A memorial service is given once a month for the residents who have passed since the last.  The Chaplin comes every Thursday for Bible studies/religious services, and one is reserved for the memorial service.  The services are always packed- the residents always come, family, staff, and volunteers.

The flags are also displayed at the service.  At the end of the memorial service, the Chaplin asks if anyone would like to say a few words about the deceased.  The best comment was when a resident said that the he always thought it was kind of the deceased to share his Marine magazines with him.  It was sweet because both men were known to be crank pots.

Writing Obituaries

Being from the South, I have read some pretty impressive obituaries.  I like when it shows the person’s personality, and I can imagine how they were.  I have a book that I keep the obituaries of the residents who I spent time with at the CLC.   Having them in my life, no matter how short, means a lot to me.  It is nice to look back and read about them.

I think that obituaries should make you smile while you read them.  You know, having them mention facts about the person that makes you say, “I bet they would have been cool/funny/awesome to have known!”

Many of the men I have met are either estranged from their family or do not have any family living.  Due to this, their obituaries are usually lacking in honoring them.  One sweet friend, who I named this blog after, had such a vibrant and interesting life, and his obituary was only one line.

One line to honor such a lovely, funny, and educated man.  It really broke my heart to read.  I wish that I could have written one for him.