This is a photo of my dad. His name is John. This photo was taken when my parents visited me in California last December.
My dad died on November 19. He was 66 years old.
My dad died unexpectedly, from complications related to pneumonia. He had been in the hospital for about a month.
We have a small family, and we decided not have a formal funeral. But, I want to tell the story of his life, and the story of his death, as a way of processing and dealing with it. Our culture has a way of denying death, and we often don’t talk openly with friends and acquaintances about what is happening with us or our families or our lives. I’ve always been a very open person, and I want to start with a story about my dad and his service in Vietnam.
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Although my dad and I got along very well – we talked once or twice a week on the phone – we did not see eye-to-eye on almost anything political. He supported McCain in the election (and voted by absentee ballot with my mom from the hospital), I supported Obama. When I supported Army Lt. Ehren Watada‘s refusal to fight in Iraq, we talked about it and agreed to disagree. I opposed the war, he thought we had done the right thing. He opposed a minimum wage increase, but supported gay marriage.
My dad was a Vietnam Vet, and it was an important part of his identity. In my parent’s family room is a framed print of the painting of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial pictured to the left, by Lee Teter, and he was a lifetime member of Vietnam Veterans of America. He served two combat tours in Vietnam while in the Navy and was a Chief Petty Officer when he left, a senior non-commissioned officer. Despite this being really important to him, we never talked about his experiences. Even when I talked with him last in the hospital, to entertain us, I was asking him questions about his family (he’s the youngest of seven children). After we had been talking for a while, he asked if I wanted to hear about Vietnam, and then said no, we shouldn’t talk about that. So I don’t know a lot of details about what happened to him there. All I really know is that he left the Navy because he and my mom didn’t want to be apart so much, and because military pay was too low for him to support his family–we received food stamps and other aid while he was enlisted. Which also meant that he left the military without savings or a retirement or pension plan.
This last week, I’ve been helping my mom organize his office and deal with all of his computer stuff. I found a file on his computer called “Anger,” and it was an essay he had written about how much he had struggled with his career after leaving the military, and how much he resented working for bosses who had gotten ahead in their careers while he was serving in Vietnam. He writes, “The ultimate insult being that by the time it was over, they had their college degrees and they had a lock on the job market,” and later, he talks about always working for someone “who got there first because they hid in college, Canada, or paper reserve and National Guard units.” It made me sad to think about how he had struggled throughout his life, but even more so, it makes me sad because I know that the situation has not changed. Aside from the highly publicized struggle by wounded vets to receive adequate care, the G.I. Bill – the government program to send vets to college – has failed many, and the skills enlistees gain in the service aren’t preparing them for the job market when they return to civilian life. Will they be doomed to the same struggle as my dad? Has nothing changed in 30 years? Beyond the conservative/liberal “support our troops” rhetoric, is anyone on any side of the aisle really doing much to care for them when they are home? I think that the closest thing I have seen is a bold and radical call from Lt. Watada for the anti-war movement to step up and put their money where their mouth is by supporting the families of war resisters financially. Has this been happening? Not as much as it should be. If you oppose the war and support our soldiers, I challenge you to give generously to organizations like Courage to Resist and Iraq Veterans Against the War.
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There is a lot more to say about my dad, but I’m not ready just yet.