Conversations with My Father: A Veteran’s Reflection

Monday Author:  Susanne Skinner

Never in the history of the world has any soldier sacrified more for the freedom and liberty of total strangers than the American soldier, Zell MillerMy Dad turned 97 this week. We are sitting in the great room of the assisted living lodge he has called home for the last two years. The gas fire warms us and the room is decorated with November colors and the anticipation of Thanksgiving. It also has small flags on display, honoring the veterans who live here. We are both wearing our Veteran’s Day poppies, his on his jacket lapel, mine on my sweater.

Grandpa Sam, as he is known to grandkids and friends, is reflecting on Veteran’s Day with me. He is frail; his memories of the present are elusive, and I have learned not to task him with remembering. He often asks what day it is, and the recent time change has thrown off his internal clock.

But he recalls the past as if it was yesterday and takes immense pride in sharing recollections of his Army career; giving me a veteran’s reflection on the significance and impact the military had on his life.

Our conversations remind me once again how proud I am to call him my Dad.

A Veteran Remembers

Having served his country in both World War II and Korea, his stories hold my attention for two reasons. He is the last of his generation to tell them in person and many of the details he shares will never be found in history books. He never used to talk about the combat side of his career, but today he is willing to go there with me.

He enlisted because he knew he would be drafted. He thought he would serve his time peacefully and return to his home in California. Instead, he found himself on Omaha Beach.

I ask him if he ever thought he would see combat and he tells me no, he never felt it would come to that. When it did, he was certain he would not survive. He credits that to “praying a lot.” He laughs and offers up one of his favorite lines, “there are no atheists in a fox hole,” but then gets very serious and says “it was kill or be killed.” 

Military History in a Box

When my parents left Europe for the last time to make their home in Maine I helped them move. I remember unpacking a box filled with Dad’s military commendation and service medals. There were many, and he knew what each one stood for.

Each medal is displayed in its own box, along with a service ribbon or bar with an attached pin. The ribbon is worn when it isn’t appropriate or possible to wear the actual medal, and can be worn on civilian clothing. Dad is never without one or two ribbons on the lapel of his jacket.

When he wore his dress blue uniform he had quite a collect of fruit salad, military slang for the display of ribbons on the left chest of the uniform. To look at that is to see his dedication and service and a career that spans 33 years and two wars. I have kept Dad’s dress blues, complete with ribbons, for the day he wears his uniform one last time.

One of my recent projects was mounting the medals into shadow boxes, which he proudly displays on the wall in his apartment.

The Face of War

America went from peace to war practically overnight. The country survived The Great Depression and transformed itself into an industrial powerhouse, building the tanks, warships and weapons that would make America victorious.

service medals, fruit salad, veteran, veteransOrdinary men and women like my mom and dad went from civilians to soldiers to defend their country. They would occasionally reminisce with fellow soldiers about the war, but never to us, even when questioned.

I ask my Dad if he knows what PTSD is and he says “Oh yes,” then brushes it aside and says “We used to call it shell shock or battle fatigue. Everyone had it.”  He reminds me that World War II was a total war, one that targeted all lives, resources and infrastructure necessary for victory. “You can’t kill people or watch people die and walk out of a war the same way you walked in.” According to Dad “It’s nothing new and they’re still trying to figure it out.”

His words remind me that over 21 million veterans are currently living in the United States. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, every day at least 22 will take their own lives. We honor Veterans one day each year; we must not forget them on the other 364.

Thank a Veteran

The sacrifice of the military veterans of World War II was and remains one of the greatest stories of our time. Yet their courage and endurance is rarely talked about, especially by soldiers themselves. Dad never talked about it.

Thank You VeteransHe does not regret his career in the military, and reminds me it’s how he met my mom.  She was in the Army Nurse Corp and understood the kind of life they would live once they married; even though it would be ten years and two wars before they did.

World War II was barely over before they would both deploy to Korea and another three years of combat. Dad did not deploy to Viet Nam, but many of my friend’s fathers did, and some did not return.  He did serve another rotation in Korea before he retired.

To my Dad: Thank you for your sacrifices and your service. You have lived an amazing life of 97years, and I cherish the time we spend together talking. You are my hero.

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