Vietnam To Sept. 11: A Daughter's Lessons
Laurel Dalrymple is an editor at NPR.org.
Duty — Honor — Country. Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn. – Gen. Douglas MacArthur, May 1962
My father was a West Point plebe when MacArthur gave this famed speech to the Corps of Cadets. I did not realize my dad was there for that speech; his classmates told me 40 years later. My dad's class of 1965, and the two classes just behind, would suffer the military academy's greatest number of casualties in the Vietnam War.
My mother, who was living with our family 11 years ago, burst into my room way too early and turned on the TV way too loud with news that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. The burning tower appeared onscreen. "Was it an accident?" I asked. Then we watched in horror as a second plane slammed into the other tower. I felt numb. Numb but somehow sick, too. We had just witnessed a moment of death. The people on that plane, the people in that building: alive just a second before impact, dead the next. What must that be like: your whole life incinerated in a single second? It was obviously no accident. I jumped out of bed. "I need to get to the newsroom." "No!" she said. "It's not safe!" "They may know more," I said, and promised to call.
You'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S.of A. Cuz we'll put a boot in your ass, it's the American way. -- "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)", Toby Keith, 2002
My dad never talked much anyway, but he especially never talked about Vietnam. If I asked, he'd pour himself a scotch, light up a Winston and walk away. I never understood why he would get so upset at images of protests, or at hearing certain songs, or at comments about the war that caused no emotional reaction in me. I was a teenager watching the movie Platoon when he walked into the room. "This is good," I said. "You should watch it." He got angry. He said he would never watch "Hollywood crap" about the war. I wondered whether it was because it was too unrealistic or too realistic. I got angry right back. "It was a long time ago!" I shouted after him as he walked down the hall. "Get over it!" I turned up the movie and sulked on the couch with my arms folded.
I remember the brilliant blue sky and thinking it seemed like the kind of day when nothing bad could happen. I sped toward Washington, D.C., on an eerily deserted interstate. All of the traffic was inching out, not in. I drove past the violent flames and thick black smoke engulfing the Pentagon and thought, "People are dying. People are dying right next to me." And, for the first time in my life, I felt true terror. In the city, the streets were completely clogged, yet strangely quiet. Nobody honked; drivers were orderly and courteous. I had never witnessed such a phenomenon in D.C. I locked eyes with a woman in another car. Her expression seemed helpless, pleading. All at once it seemed we were not black or white or gay or straight or Republicans or Democrats or believers or nonbelievers. We were all Americans, and we were under attack. And in the midst of that terror, I also felt for the first time that we were united as a country. I found strength in that thought.
"I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us. The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days ..." – Chris Taylor, young recruit in the Vietnam War movie Platoon, 1986
My dad drank and smoked himself to death. That's just the plain truth. He was 46 and still in the reserves when he died, but my mother and I did not qualify for pension or health benefits. I was 20, and still in school. My mother had never supported herself. I was bitter and afraid of the future, but we coped. Barely. Nearly 20 years later, and for no real reason, I searched his name on the Internet. A West Point site popped up with the word "unknown." It appeared the class of '65 kept meticulous records on each member. I sent an email to the alumni office with information to update its files. A few days later I got a phone call: "I was your father's company commander at West Point, and I'd like to meet with you." Then he invited me to join the class's 40th reunion in New York.
The Washington Post's newsroom was full of rumors of planes still in the air. I watched people jump to their deaths, great skyscrapers collapse on top of trapped victims, horrified people sitting covered in blood and debris, and panicked faces fleeing to just anywhere else. Was this really New York City? I heard a plane may be headed toward the White House, just over three blocks away. I heard of a crash in a Pennsylvania field. How many would die? Would I die? Were we defending ourselves? What else was coming? It was unfathomable to me, a war on our own turf. It was eye opening in the worst way.
[He] lived up to the West Point motto "Duty, Honor, Country." His concern for the well-being of his soldiers was never greater than when his own well-being was in jeopardy. He often passed the credit for his achievements to his soldiers. — Citation on my father's Meritorious Service Medal.
At the reunion, my father's classmates, none of whom I'd ever met, hugged me like family. Some studied my face, looking for my dad's features, apologizing for doing so. They spent hours that weekend just sitting with me, telling me stories about him, stories I'd never heard. About how he brightened the spirits of those around him. About his easy laugh and playful sense of humor. His mastery with a rifle. How he taught himself to play the guitar. His book of irreverent doodles. They showed me old photos, his barracks, where he ate meals, where he played sports, where he prayed. They showed me a man I never knew existed. One they were proud to know. One I wished I knew. At dinner we talked about Vietnam. It was clear they found real solace only in each other. There was a memorial service at the cemetery for those who had died. And I couldn't help but think, as I stood among my dad's classmates while his name was read and taps was played, that he probably felt more at home with the Army than he had ever felt at home with us. But he never reached out to the men standing by my side. That made me cry, and in those tears, I found forgiveness.
I did not understand until Sept. 11 that there are just some things that need to be lived through to be understood.
"Get a f- - - - - - life people. The whole 9-11 fiasco was over a f- - - - - - decade ago. Are you clowns going to relive that s- - - every year? Christ don't you think it's time to move the f- - - on?" — Comment on The Onion's Facebook posting.
I met a Vietnam War widow at the reunion. She had been coming every year for 40 years. She showed me a picture of her husband and we sat outside and talked about him.
Recently the satirical website The Onion posted on Facebook a Photoshopped image of a plane about to crash into Chicago's [Sears] Willis Tower. The post generated an emotional 4,000-plus comment debate about its propriety. Reading through the back-and-forth, I thought about the difference between experiencing tragedy as a kid and experiencing it as an adult. A new generation is coming. One that did not personally experience Sept. 11. Yet it is the fallout from that day that instilled in many of us a deep desire to "protect" ourselves and generations beyond. Our children are growing up in an age of war, invasive searches, increased border security, barricades, extensive background checks and the Patriot Act. Maybe today's youth feel as though they are paying for an overreaction to a single horrific event that happened a long time ago. In trying to protect their freedom, we also stole some of it. Is that why they want us to "get over it"? Should we "get over it"?
The lives of Sept. 11's 3,000 victims were reduced to a joke on Facebook, a joke many found funny. And this, the forgetting of what it is like to live through human suffering, or the absence of experiencing it firsthand, is why I believe history can repeat itself. Perhaps that is just the natural cycle of things: suffering, recovery, suffering, recovery. But will there ever truly be peace if we must personally experience suffering in order to learn from it?
Yet living as prisoners of our pasts is equally as destructive. It also creates suffering, both in ourselves and those who love and need us in the moment. Moving on is not the same as forgetting. In fact, moving on is necessary after great pain.
Resilience. That is the lesson the class of '65 taught me. That is the lesson Sept. 11 taught me. And sadly, that is the lesson my father taught me.
"Never Again" – Memorial at Germany's Dachau concentration camp.
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