I cried the entire way from the pier in San Diego to the Naval Air Station in Lemoore where I was born, nearly five hours. I was three months old when my dad left on the Oriskany (CV-34) for his second tour in Vietnam. Nine months later he came home and I was walking. I had no idea who he was or why he was in the car with my mom and I, and evidently I was not happy about it.
Growing up the stories I heard about his time in Vietnam were virtually non-existent. I remember that at least once a year we would visit Lourdes and her kids, including her son Johnny. Johnny and I were the same age, born just weeks apart. Johnny had Downs Syndrome and I remember how intentional my Dad was to spend time with him when we visited. The story about Johnny’s dad, Hap, was one of the few I had heard.
Hap was one of my Dad’s closest friends on the ship, and he was shot down on a mission. When we visited them a black flag with big white letters “MIA POW” flew in front of their home. “They saw him punch out… On the first pass and he was limp in the shoot. He was on the ground when they passed the second time and when they passed over a third time, he was gone.”
Mark and I moved to Baltimore, MD in 1990 and my parents came to visit. On a cold winter day we walked with them to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. Quietly my parents walked, stopping to read the names, looking for my Dad’s friends. We found Art Avor first. I had never heard Art’s name, but that day my Dad was tearful and his words came haltingly, his emotions palpable. “Art was my best friend. We lost him when the catapult malfunctioned. We never recovered his body or his plane.” Tears spilled from his eyes. We watched as he took a piece of paper and traced over Art’s name with a pencil. We walked a bit further and found Hap’s name, and again my Dad traced carefully over it.
Before that day I had seen my Dad with tears in his eyes only once; the day I got married. At the memorial his tears spilled freely from his eyes.
I have come to know my Dad as a very tender hearted man. While I remember his eyes always being kind, he held his emotions “close to the vest” while I was growing up. I didn’t know the pain and sorrow he held inside until we stood side by side at the Vietnam memorial.
Recently my Dad wrote these words, “We came home from this war to a hostile public, many of who were part of a strong anti-war movement. Our brave men deserved better! It has taken many years before their sacrifice was acknowledged and people finally began to thank Vietnam veterans for their service to our nation. It was my extreme honor to serve with these heroes. They will never be forgotten!”
My Dad went into the Navy just weeks after he and my mom married. There was honor in choosing to serve his country. He had hoped to fly, but found out his eyes were not going to afford him that joy. I was born in 1965 in the midst of the Vietnam War, between my Dad’s two tours. Never before had our country shamed the troops returning home. It was shocking and silencing for my Dad. And, he chose to continue in the Naval reserves, despite the harsh reception he experienced upon his return he felt a strong conviction about continuing to serve his country. Last year my Dad became a chaplain, serving veterans in hospice. He sits, he listens, he shares his stories. He offers validation, kindness, and his tender heart. It seems full circle to me. On the ship he was the intellegiance officer, briefing and debriefing the pilots. Today he does much of the same, briefing and debriefing those who know death is near. He is well equipped and continues to serve, his country and his Savior.
I am profoundly grateful my Dad came home, when many of his friends did not. I am proud to be his daughter.
I feel more aware of the cost for freedom this year, more aware of the sacrifices, more tender to the stories, more grateful for the men and women who have given so much, that so many would be free.
Tracy Johnson is a lover of stories, a reluctant dreamer and the Founder of Red Tent Living. Married for over 33 years, she is mother to five kids and a pastors wife. She loves quiet mornings with hot coffee, rich conversations and slowly savored meals at her favorite restaurants. She is awed that God chose her to mother four girls having grown up with no sisters. She writes about her life and her work here.