I’ve spent the day thinking about this post, trying to remember the military history of my family. I know my maternal grandfather served, but I’m not sure when. I know my paternal grandparents both served; my grandmother was a WAC during WWII, but I’m not sure what capacity my grandfather served in.
Three of my uncles served in the military. One served sometime in the early 60′s, one volunteered for the draft during the escalation in Vietnam, and was stationed in Germany, and the last, David, was drafted, and served in Vietnam.
I’d like to tell you about my uncle David, who served in Vietnam, but I can’t. Because I really don’t know much about him.
My family has an unusual family tree, in that my mother’s older sister, married my father’s old brother. (I’ll wait while you put that together.) So my cousins and I all share the same aunts, and uncles, and grandparents. We all grew up a few blocks from each other, in and out of houses with no knocking, and no reason. Christmas Day was spent at my maternal grandparent’s house, and Christmas Eve was spent at my paternal grandparent’s house. Both days involved most of the same people, just shifted over a few blocks.
I have a few early memories of my uncle David. Though I’m not sure if they are real memories, or if I’ve appropriated them from photographs. He wasn’t really around much, and to be honest, neither he, nor my father’s oldest brother were ever particularly interested in the lives of their brothers and their respective families. Anyway, the image I have of David is one from a photograph my father took of him, sometime in the mid-seventies. My father was a photographer by profession and had taken this image, blown it up to 3-by-5 feet and hung it on the wall of his shop. The picture was shot very tight; there is no background. Only my uncle’s eyes, and nose, framed by his long hair, and equally long beard. His expression is impassive.
Everyone says he was brilliant. Walking that fine line between genius and madness.
David drove a tank in Vietnam. And, apparently, he was one of those Vietnam vets of legend; the men who came back changed. Who came back addicts. Who came back mentally unstable. Who came back after being part of something traumatic.
I saw him about a decade ago. I was standing in front of my grandparent’s house, he was living across the street with a friend. He came over and looked at me, recognition registering after a few moments. “You’re one of the kids, right? One of my brothers’ kids?” He didn’t know my name, nor who my father was. I can’t really blame him, it had been at least 10, maybe even 15 years since I’d seen him.
My father called a few weeks ago to tell me that David had passed away.
I have an enormous amount of respect for women and men who choose to serve. And I think of my uncle, and how his service changed his life. And I offer Thanks to the soldiers who will never be the same, because war is ugly, and tragic, and terrifying, and sometimes absolutely necessary. Thank You for risking your life, and your security, and your peace, so that I may keep mine.