I'm honored to be the son of a veteran. Watching dad put on that uniform everyday for over 20 years, and his complete dedication to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America, often at the expense of time with his family, brings a wistful tear to my eye. The pride, the bulging chest muscles of his narrow frame that accompanied another successful mission -- dad was so proud to don that uniform.
I'm equally honored to have served my country and join the fraternity of proud veterans who swore to defend this great nation. Despite its many flaws and warts, America is a beacon for the rest of the world, in many respects because of those flaws and warts.
Knowing I wanted to honor my dad in writing on Veterans Day, I went through some of his photos and ran across a picture of dad and two of his fellow airmen, sitting on what looks to be a helicopter, while the chopper sat on the tarmac. They were facing outward smiling for the cameras. I stared at the photo for an hour, thinking back to that heartwrenching August afternoon in 1969, when Dad boarded a bus in Atlantic City, New Jersey, headed for McGuire Air Force Base. Next stop Vietnam.
I was eleven that hot muggy afternoon on the South Jersey shore, as dad in his military uniform, with four stripes stitched into the fabric of his blue Air Force shirt, boarded a Greyhound, briefly disappearing from view before he took a window seat, and continued waving goodbye. For a brief moment, it felt like a cruel joke -- disappearing, reappearing, then disappearing again. Would dad's waving hand and pressed forehead against that tiny window be my lasting image of this wonderful man, a man who nurtured and cared for me so completely?
Tears poured from mom's eyes soaking her shirt, as she held my hand in a vice grip trying to steady herself. She wanted to be strong for her kids, especially my two younger sisters', neither of whom fully comprehended Vietnam, but the emotions of the moment were simply too much for her to bear. Realizing mom was in danger of a total collapse, I subconsciously allowed her to continue to squeeze my hand without comment. The blood slowly drained from my extremities until it felt like someone was stabbing my hand with tiny needles.
We stood as the bus pulled away from the station, black smoke billowing from the exhaust. Just like that, dad was gone.
Dad was not drafted. When he left for Vietnam, he'd already served 11 years. There was never any doubt in dad's mind he would someday be sent to Vietnam. I remember vague conversations between my parents' about that likelihood -- well that day had come.
But I've been troubled since childhood about the complete lack of respect for my dad's generation of veterans. Not once throughout my childhood did I hear the phrase, "thank you for your service" directed towards my dad, and others of the Vietnam Era.
The political and social climate of the late 1960s and early 70s didn't allow the broader American populace to embrace these heroes as in previous wars. Between the political climate and PTSD, tens of thousands of Vietnam vets spent years on the streets of America scavenging for food and suffering in fear and shame. For many, it was a short elevator ride of despair to the bottom of a psychological basement they would never escape.
The polarization of America thanks to Vietnam was so complete back then, that even my junior high school classmates', all military dependents, took to singing the popular war protest songs of the day, openly criticizing the very service member parent who had served in Vietnam.
Regardless of what one thought of our political leaders, and I've certainly criticized my fair share for Vietnam, the soldiers of Vietnam deserve more respect and love than I've seen exhibited to date, 40 years after Vietnam officially ended.
I remember dad screaming at the television set one day as President Lyndon Johnson referenced the Vietnam War as the Vietnam Conflict. Dad lost many friends in Vietnam. Vietnam was no simple conflict and no amount of sexy language skills should diminish that fact. It cheapens the sacrifice of so many.
Dad died of pancreatic cancer three years ago, having never fully recovered from Vietnam. His PTSD was left untreated. The demons of Vietnam continued to haunt him throughout the remainder of his life. He managed to mask his suffering for years, if one could ignore his after work drinking binges, to be a truly productive member of the Armed Forces. But having a front row seat to dad's suffering gnaws at me, even today. I wept silently for dad during my teenage years; silent because showing weakness was not something he would have tolerated.
Dad never discussed Vietnam around the family, but around his fellow veterans, they talked openly of their experience in some sort of adhoc group therapy session over drinks. I didn't fully comprehend their collective pain until I began my military service years later. I served over seven years during the post-Vietnam era. Many of the Vietnam Era soldiers were still on active duty. Some shared stories of their sacrifice only because I was military, but honestly, my service didn't compare -- these were true heroes, men and women our nation simply refused to embrace.
On this Veterans Day, I wish to salute all vets, for one tragic war is no less significant than any other, but I want to give a special salute to Vietnam Era vets and to my father Senior Master Sergeant Richard Bennett. Dad, thank you for your service. Many of us noticed and remember.
Your Loving Son
To learn more about this author, speaker and entrepreneur go to www.michaelgordonbennett.com.