I remember when you came back from Vietnam, how hard it was for you to be around us. We were just little kids and didn’t understand what you’d been through, what you’d seen. We didn’t understand why you were distant at times, angry at others. How could we?
I remember the night you came home, dressed in fatigues. You’d grown a mustache and I didn’t recognize you. You leaned down and held out your arms for me. I ran away and hid behind mom. Who was this man? My father had been gone for more than a year, and I’d forgotten what he looked like, what he smelled like. This man looked bigger, taller, harder, and he smelled of shoe polish, leather, and smoke.
The anger was swift when I ran away. Your eyes narrowed and you asked mom what the hell was wrong with me. She tried to explain that I was just a child. I didn’t understand. It would take some time for me to get used to you again. You dropped your duffle bag on the porch and went inside the trailer, the screen door banging behind you. You didn’t receive the welcome home you wanted, the welcome home you needed. None of the Marines did.
The days and weeks that followed your arrival weren’t easy. You yelled a lot. Mom cried a lot. Steve hid under the trailer because he was scared. Remember how he got ringworm on his head because of it, and you had to shave his head? I spent a lot of time sitting on the swing set, drifting back and forth, watching the birds, watching the stars, wondering when it would be safe to go back into the trailer again.
What had happened to my dad? How could I make him happy again? Why was he so angry? What had war done to him? Why were people on the news saying my dad was bad because he had gone to Vietnam?
I know now why you were angry. You had served your country, lost friends, seen friends injured in war, and then came home to a country that had turned on you. There was no welcome home. There was only blame, rejection, and shame.
Of course, I didn’t understand any of that. I saw it around me, felt it. I remember seeing the wounded soldiers when we went to the commissary at Camp Lejeune. I remember hearing about kids at school whose dads never came home. I remember women in the neighborhood leaving their husbands after they returned. It was just too hard. They couldn’t handle it. The stress of it all. Families broken. Lives ripped apart. The pain of war swirled around me, stealing away bits and pieces of my childhood.
But you never gave up. You never gave up on me, our family, or our country. Remember that winter when you took us to the beach at Camp Lejeune? You packed up sea rations and scratchy military blankets and loaded us into your ’67 dark gray Chevy. The day was cloudy, but the sun peeked through in places. We sat by the ocean and opened tins of crackers and meat and cheese and drank out of canteens. No food ever tasted better. The anger was gone from your blue eyes, and I listened to your stories and your laughter as the sea rolled in. The birds called overhead, and the air was filled with the smell of salt and brine and life. We walked on the beach, and you held my hand. I felt safe that day. I was with my dad again. We stood beside the ocean and it crashed against the sand. We had to run up the beach to keep from getting our toes wet. You picked me up and carried me on your shoulders. I could smell your aftershave, a musty sweetness mixed with the scent of the sea. That smell has stayed with me, and it always reminds me of you and of that day when I was so happy my dad had come home.
Thank you, Dad, for giving up so much for us; not just for going to serve, but coming home and dealing with all the trials and difficulties of living among civilians who couldn’t relate to what you’d been through. They hadn’t seen what you’d seen. They hadn’t heard the cries on the battlefield that were suddenly silenced, or those that lingered as life refused to let go. They didn’t know the loss of friends whom you had laughed with, trained with, toiled with, only to have them gone in a rush of gunshot fire.
I’ve often wondered whether during, those moments of silence or those moments of weeping, you could hear echoes of their laughter. Or did you hear nothing, only the beating of your own heart? Or was it only the cries? Was the pain and the fear all that was real? Of course, I don’t know. You never talked about it. I can only imagine what you were feeling, what you were remembering. Such things don’t need to be spoken. But I know they’re not forgotten.
On this day, when we’re remembering our veterans, I want you to know that I haven’t forgotten what you’ve done for us, and the price you and so many have paid for our freedom. You went to distant shores to protect our home, and when you came home you weren’t welcomed as you should have been. I hope we as a country have learned our lesson—that when our soldiers come home we welcome them with the honor and respect they deserve, that we give them the love and support they need.
You have that from me, dad—honor and respect. But mostly, you have my love. The anger you harbored wasn’t you. The hardness in your eyes didn’t reflect my dad. That was something else, something alien. Beneath it all was a man of love and passion, of loyalty and devotion. You never lost that man. You never gave up on him. Neither did I.
Thank you, dad. I love you, and welcome home.