Military life meant moving every year from one Army fort to another. This year, however, the destination was different. There were no forts in Wichita Kansas, just Dad’s brothers. Orders for Vietnam came through and Dad wanted us close to relatives just in case. At twelve years old, I didn’t give the just in case scenario any thought. My father had already survived thirty-three missions flying a bomber over Germany, served a year in the Korean War, and spent 18 months in volatile Turkey— so I didn’t think anything of this Vietnam deployment.
With lots of hugs, I said goodbye. School started and ordinary life resumed as we moved into our new home a block from my aunt and uncle. I had no clue how much our lives were about to change.
March 15, 1967, is a day burned into my memory. Mom was home alone when the doorbell rang. A taxi driver stood on the porch holding a telegram. With a quiet apology, he handed it to her and walked away.
I was at my aunt’s when the phone rang. She answered, dropped the receiver, and tore out of the house, slamming the screen door behind her. A sense of dread welled up as I saw her turn toward my house. I ran after her.
When I entered the house, mom was lying down on the couch, pale and shaking. As I dropped to the floor next to her, she grabbed my hand.
My aunt explained, “Your Dad’s been wounded, but we don’t know his condition because the telegram’s over a day old.” My heart raced as my stomach clenched with fear and everything after that was a blur.
My uncles burst through the door carrying a CB radio. They knew a HAM operator who might find someone with more information. After a few tense hours, they finally connected with the nurse-overseeing Dad’s care at Tan Son Knut Air Force Base in South Vietnam.
He was alive.
A few weeks later when Dad was stable, they transferred him to Fitzsimmons Hospital in Denver, Colorado and Mom flew out to be with him. During our phone conversations, the only thing Mom said was he looked different.
My sister and I were anxious to see him when we arrived in Denver. As we exited the hospital elevator, a frail, hunched over, withered man with a mask covering the lower part of his face stood waiting. But I recognized those piercing, blue eyes — they were my Dad’s eyes. I hugged him, but was afraid to squeeze too hard because he was so thin. His body trembled with fatigue after standing only a few short minutes. My Dad was alive and in my mind, the doctors would heal him. Everything would be okay.
The next evening, mom hesitated outside his room and warned us that Dad wasn’t wearing his mask. Then she opened the door.
There sat a monster.
A sniper’s bullet had struck the back of his neck, ricocheted around his mouth and exited under his left eye. His face was flat, the bridge of his nose gone. One side of his misshapen jaws protruded further than the other one and a tube in his throat helped him breathe. Bile rose up in my throat and I felt sick.
My sister fell into Mom’s arms sobbing, and I couldn’t move. Then I looked into his eyes, the same eyes I’d seen yesterday, except now they were filled with sorrow. I took a deep breath, marched over to him, sat down in his lap, and laid my head on his shoulder. Tears slipped down his wounded face as he wrapped his thin arms around me.
It was a miracle that the bullet had missed his jugular vein, spinal cord, and brain. A fraction of an inch in any direction would have paralyzed or killed him.
His healing journey had just begun, but my life also changed.
Every day after school, I walked to the hospital, where helicopters methodically landed two at a time delivering more wounded. As I made my way through the lobby, the x-ray department was on my left. Listless soldiers lay on gurneys lining both sides of the hall. Under each gurney, an additional soldier was lying on a stretcher. To my right, other G.I.s packed the waiting room of the prosthetics department. Some were waiting for measurements, while others received their new artificial limbs.
I continued to the elevator and punched the 4West button. The doctors didn’t know where to place my dad, as he was an unusual case, so they put him with the amputees. The sight overwhelmed me every time I opened the door to the ward. Stretched out was row upon row of young men with missing limbs. Each day I had to walk past them to reach my father’s room.
Because of the hole in the roof of Dad’s mouth eating was a real problem. So the doctors made an incision in his stomach and pulled a section of the lining up for him to insert a feeding tube each time he needed sustenance. While he gently placed a rubber tube into his stomach, I would draw a protein concoction into a giant syringe then push the plunger to deliver his meal. After each feeding, he’d smear petroleum jelly around the opening, then placed several layers of gauze and tape over the top.
To keep stomach acid from leaking through the bandages, he had to recline in bed with only a pillow behind his head. Unable to do much in that position, boredom quickly set in. So my mother taught him to knit. I would spend the evenings by his bedside sipping soda out of a paper cup and doing homework, while he knitted sweaters for all our relatives.
One evening, he told me how he was wounded. “Bullets were pelting the dirt around me, so I turned and ran up the hill. When the bullet struck me, I spun around and landed on my back. A surreal peace surrounded me as I stared up at a clear blue sky and for the first time heard birds singing in the trees. I’m alive I thought, but when I tried to take a breath, I couldn’t. I silently cried out to God asking why I had survived the bullet only to suffocate. Then I heard a voice saying ‘roll over.’ As I struggled to my side, something shifted and I began gulping the air. It’s not something I like to think about too much, but, I’ll never forget God’s voice.”
Three years later, after fifty reconstructive surgeries, Dad’s face was as good as it would get. By that time, I was blind to the disfigurement. I saw only Dad, my inspiration, mentor, and hero.
Today, kids experience the heartbreak of war through loss or debilitating injury to a parent or sibling, but patriotism toward our military is strong and supportive. I had to contend with war protests, angry slurs and witnessing the devastating effects on our returning young men from Vietnam.
I’m one of the lucky ones. Where my dad’s tragedy caused disfigurement of the outward man, it didn’t touch his inner integrity. He remained a strong proponent of freedom for all. In that environment, I was able to hold my head up and continue to be proud of my father regardless of how he looked. What he instilled in me was a love for my country and accepting the bad along with the good.
I’m forever grateful for the surgeons at Tan Son Knut Air Force base who wove together the splinters of Dad’s lower jaw. The accomplishments of the plastic surgeons in the late 60’s were amazing. None of the medical problems they foresaw ever manifested. Today my dad is 94 years old, active in church, and still knitting hats for missions in Peru.