My father grew up in a small coal-mining town in West Virginia. When he was 18, he enlisted in the US Air Force at a time many young people were worried about, and avoiding, the draft. He wanted to serve his country.
He was a quiet man. He was never the life of the party, but somehow his presence always made things a little better. He preferred to be behind the scenes, rather than in the spot light.
My father served from the end of the Korean conflict, through Viet Nam, and briefly afterward. He worked in life support services, making sure that our planes, pilots and passengers were as safe as possible. He made sure that many men got in, and out, alive.
My father was one of the thousands of military personnel who served his country. He did so with no glory, no recognition, and no medals for his valuable service. And that is the way he wanted it. He always made a difference, even though many people may not have realized it.
I remember the years at the end of the Viet Nam conflict. My father served several tours in Okinawa, Thailand, Korea and other areas I am sure I don’t remember. He would come home for a few weeks, and then get re-assigned to another base over seas. I remember one time he had just gotten home. My mother, father and I were laying carpet in the hallway of our small house in Louisiana when he got the call to report the next day and ship out again. My mother was hysterical, and all I knew was that my dad would be gone again.
My dad was not able to be there with me as I was growing up. He was constantly being shipped somewhere to fulfill his duty. He was not there for little league games, pee-wee football, and cub scouts. As a result, when he retired in 1975, I now had a father that I barely knew, and who barely knew me.
I don’t know what happened to my father that last tour, but he came home changed. He came home and was determined to do two things: Learn to swim, and go into nursing school. He never told me or my mom exactly why. He stayed very quiet about that last tour, and whenever he was asked would just sort of look past you and say that he could not think about it.
He did go into nursing afterward – one of the first male nurses from his school. Another job that he did to serve others, with little regard for recognition for himself. And he was damned good.
When my father retired from nursing – nearly 25 years at the same hospital – he dedicated himself to his church. He built altars, did general carpentry and maintained his church in Louisiana with pride, and once again, very little recognition for his efforts.
He threw himself into activities with his church. Any time the church needed something, he was there ready to pitch in. He built a complete altar and pulpit by hand for his church, and when the time came for dedication, he once again shunned the recognition. He felt that seeing people appreciate the work from his hands and heart was better than applause or a pat on the back.
My father began getting sick about 6 yrs ago. Doctors at first thought he had Bell’s palsy. After more than a year and no improvement, specialists determined that he had cancer. On my mother’s birthday, he was told he had 11 brain tumors, as well as cancer in his lungs. My father had previously had prostate cancer and beaten it. But this time he could not.
Doctor’s immediately asked if he had been exposed to Agent Orange. My father told them about his tours of duty, and trips into, and out of Vietnam. He was told that this exposure was quite likely the cause of this cancer.
My father fought it. He tried like hell to be there for his new grandson – only 4 yrs old at the time. He kept pictures of my son in his room to give him hope, and a reason to live. In the end, the cancer won. My father passed away only 6 months after being diagnosed.
I remember going to his room and sitting with him. The cancer that had taken over his brain made him confused about where, and when, he was. I noticed that he kept lifting a blanket and running his fingers over the hems. He inspected every single inch of those blankets, occasionally stopping to do something that I did not recognize.
Finally, I said “Eddins, what are you doing there?”
He said “I have to get these chutes repaired before those boys go back up there. Let me do my job sir.”
My father had gone back in his mind, again, to his job in the Air Force. In his mind he was inspecting and repairing parachutes so that our pilots would be safe. I stayed there with him, me pretending to be another airman so that my father would not get scared, and he could do his duty.
Just before he passed, I took his hand and told him that he needed to rest. I told him “You’ve done a good job Eddins. Your work is finished. You can rest now.”
He lifted on withered hand and put it on my cheek and said “we got it done didn’t we?”
“Yes sir, we are done. Take some time off now,” I said.
He passed away a few days later. Still confused, still thinking he was back in that parachute shop, determined to help his comrades in arms.
I wonder to this day, how many men owe their lives to the work my father did in that little shed beside the runway. How many men are able to bounce their grandkids on their knees because some unseen angel of mercy made sure they got back to ground safely?
I admit at times I am bitter because Dad is not among those men, and those men have no idea that they are here because of him. But when I do feel that way, I remember my father’s approach – always in the background, never on stage. He wanted it this way, so I am able to be proud for those other grandfathers.
After he passed, my mother and I applied for her widow’s benefits. She was denied any Agent Orange benefits because the government denied his presence in Viet Nam. A presence we, his family, know full well. We have letters from lifelong friends, some of whom were in-country with him. To no avail, my mother is still denied. Apparently there was a large fire in a records warehouse that destroyed many military service records. Now it is incumbent on us to prove that my father served his country in Viet Nam.
This is shameful. Not only that my mother is left widowed by a war fought 40 years ago, but by the VA, Department of the Air Force, and every other beaurocrat denying my father’s sacrifice.
My father was not there when I was young. He never saw me doing all the things young kids do. Now he will never see his grandson do those same things. I grew up without a father; my son will have no grandfather.
So, I encourage you to please not forget this story, and the thousands like it. Being a veteran means that your service is never done. And lives can be lost to the ravages of war decades after the shooting stops. It’s not always the bullet or the bomb that gets you in the end.
My father gave his life serving his country – a little bit at a time – over the course of many, many years. Young men and women returning from our current conflict may well suffer the same consequences. So please, if you are truly support our troops, remember this story. Do not forget my father. Do not forget the others like him.