As a young man, my Grandpa Richard joined the Navy and served in World War II. Later, he joined the Air Force and served in both Korea and Viet Nam. He is one of the few men I had ever met in person that pulled the trifecta of service in all three of those wars.
I was four years old when the Viet Nam War ended. The country seemed to be in a state of turmoil for a while after that. And while I’m sure I didn’t stop what I was doing everyday to watch the 6 o’ clock news it was impossible for anyone, even a child, not to hear what was going on in the world or be in earshot of opinions about such an explosive, hot-blooded topic.
At some point, probably when I was about six years old, maybe seven, I had too many questions in my little head from all the debates and discussion still going on about what happened in Viet Nam and I asked my grandpa why we lost the war. That was not pretty. He was upset that I asked and chastised me right there in public. He told me never to ask him that again. I went a long time wondering about his military service, what he had done, where he had been, and what kind of stories he had. But for the longest time, I just never asked.
When I was in my late teens making a trip from Louisiana to Florida, I stopped at my grandparent’s house to spend the night on the way. Grandpa and I were up watching late night reruns of Baa Baa Black Sheep, a TV show based on a USMC aviator fighter squadron from WWII. During our discussion of the show I decided to ask about his time in the military. He told me some stories. He shared some things with me. I asked questions about each of the wars he served in and he answered them. It was one of the few bonding moments I can remember having with him.
Somewhere in a box or drawer I still have a shell casing from the 21 gun salute that was done at his funeral by an honor guard from Keesler Air Force Base. I remember the ceremony. I remember the flag being folded. I remember my grandma crying. I don’t have a clear memory of the stories he shared with me that night twenty something years ago, but I will never forget how it felt that he shared with me his experiences of war. Perhaps it meant so much to me because for so many years I thought the subject was taboo. Maybe it was because when he shared with me, I felt he looked at me as a man instead of child. For whatever the reason, it was a special moment for me that I still cherish today.
Going to war when he did is very different from going to war today. And it even changed significantly from his service in WWII to his time in Viet Nam. I don’t have great war stories from my time in Iraq, and I’m alright with that. And I hope my next deployment is just as uneventful. But here’s one thing that I see as the same from both his generation and mine concerning going to war: Coming home from war is the hard part.
Veterans from my grandfather’s era are fading fast. If you know one or have the honor of meeting one, thank them. And if they’ll share their stories, take the time to listen. They are in fact dubbed The Greatest Generation for a reason.
Good day and God bless.