In 1989 or 1990, two decades after I returned from Vietnam, I wrote this article with the intention of eventually writing a book about the horrors of the Vietnam War. With my late wife, Kay, providing input, I filed this short story away and forgot about it. She and I never shared this account with anyone, including our daughter. Recently, while cleaning out my files, I found the now faded typewritten copy. I showed it to our daughter, Sandy, and she believes that it is the best story out of the many I’ve written about that war.
I hope patriotic the readers of the Daily Iowegian, as they did in 1968, will understand the loneliness, despair and fear that any war brings to families.
The emotional anti-war fervor that swept America in 1968 and the endlessly brutal Vietnam War both had a profound effect upon everyone who remembers that year. Twenty years seems so very long, but the memories of that traumatic year are so vivid, unforgettable, and painful. From high schools, colleges, businesses, churches, homes, and even our nation’s Capitol, bitter and heated emotions over the war threatened the very foundation of our democracy. We were a bitterly fragmented society lacking both a national purpose and leadership. Amid the swirling turmoil, military personnel and their families became targets of the anti-war groups, patriotic symbols of those supporting the war and the victims of an enemy who rejoiced in America’s lack of will and unity.
In 1968, I was a Marine Corps first lieutenant, and, with my wife, Kay, and baby daughter, Sandy, lived in a lovely brick home near the large Marine base at Quantico, Vir., where I was assigned the duties of helping train officers for the war. As was the case with most American military couples in 1968, Kay and I enjoyed a peaceful existence and were thoroughly enjoying the early months of our young daughter’s life. Vietnam was many miles away, but the war was never far from our minds.
Though I had served an earlier tour in Vietnam in 1965-66, I had already been told that I would be ordered back in 1968. As was the case in most homes across our country, Kay and I solemnly and silently followed the war’s progress, the raging anti-war rhetoric and the furious political debates over the war. We spoke very little about the war and the inevitable pain and separation we would soon experience. Instead, we quietly devoted our life to each other and to the present and future needs of our beautiful daughter. We simply contained strong emotions and awaited the preordained fate that would interrupt and change our life as a family.
At work, away from families, Marines openly expressed anger, frustration and bitterness over the constant anti-war barrages and the declining public and political support for the war effort. Caught between the intense strife over the war, the patriotic sacrifices of our friends who were fighting and dying in Vietnam, and the loyalty and love for our families, we felt tormented and abused. As we watched the mounting human cost in Vietnam and the verbal abuse bestowed upon the military by millions of Americans, our patriotism and pride remained undaunted while our spirit and morale slowly deteriorated.
When my orders to Vietnam finally arrived, I was emotionally relieved to be finally escaping the national agitations but forlorn and apprehensive over leaving my family. Kay and I mutually agreed to sell our Virginia home and relocate to Centerville, until I returned. Though we were saddened by leaving our home that held so many cherished memories, we knew this was the most logical solution.
Centerville is a small, friendly community. Kay’s parents and many of her friends lived in Centerville where she was born and raised. My parents lived near Washington, Iowa, about a hundred miles away. We felt that living near families would provide Kay and Sandy with the love and comfort so urgently needed during the difficult times of loneliness and despair. I would be somewhat less worried by knowing they were surrounded by the congenial nature of Centerville’s citizens, and near loved ones who would be sensitive and concerned.
Kay and I both knew that the very nature of the wartime separation, regardless of the unalterable events Vietnam could present, would require her total resolve and an unwavering spirit. We knew that being apart would be a supreme test of courage, perseverance, and our love for each other.
On the evening before we were to leave for Iowa, Kay and I were given a farewell party by fellow Marines and their wives. Throughout military communities, there existed a binding friendship among families in which moral support, sincere understanding and strong encouragement were constant virtues. Friendships were preciously valued. There was no flag raising patriotic hoopla as Americans left their families to fight, suffer and possibly die in a war a half a world away, and there were no gloriously grateful welcomes when we returned. In 1968, departures to and returns from the war were kept intimately private among small circles of friends and family members.
At the farewell, my brothers-in-arms presented me with an officers’ sword as a going away gift. Though I was supposed to purchase the expensive item after I’d received my battlefield commission in 1966, I didn’t. Since I was in a temporary officers status, I figured I’d be reverted back to an enlisted rank when the war ended. When the commanding officer said some nice words about me, Kay’s eyes sparkled with pride and affection.
During my 30 days leave of absence before departing for Vietnam, Kay and I rented an inexpensive but comfortable two-story house on the friendly and peaceful street of Haynes Avenue in Centerville. We immediately engaged in furnishing and arranging the house so we could have the remaining time for our private family activities. Each morning, the citizens of that beautiful town would smile and wave as I took my long runs to stay in physical shape for the upcoming ordeal.
Even though our neighbors were pleasantly sociable and cordial, we unconsciously isolated ourselves from the public. Except for our immediate families, Kay and I desired to devote the little time we had left to each other and Sandy. Our days and nights were filled with warm and tender love. We were inseparable.
On one bright and pleasant weekend my parents, Omer and Faye Crawford, brothers and sisters, and Kay’s family visited for a traditional farewell. It was also a farewell for my brother, Mike, who had enlisted in the Marines and would soon leave for recruit training. Though I silently opposed his decision to enlist in the Marines for our mother’s sake, I was extremely proud and grateful that he possessed the youthful courage and patriotic sense of duty in which so many his age either lacked or found disgraceful. In a few months, Mike would voluntarily waiver his right to remain out of the war zone while I was there and would join me in the rice paddies and jungles of northern South Vietnam.
The weekend was filled with many cheerful activities and constant reminiscing. My sister Peggy’s young daughters, Tammy and Debbi, and Sandy were the focus of everyone’s attention and they relished the opportunity to be at center stage. Though everyone knew the purpose of the occasion, there was never any mention of the war, the swirling turmoil over the war or the inherent pain and suffering of being separated. The weekend also marked the only time that Kay’s firm resolve and emotional courage ever cracked. Apparently affected by the persistent cheerfulness and unceasing clamor of many family members at a time in which she felt so much stress, she unashamedly and suddenly broke down and cried. Within a very short time, she regained her composure and everyone seemed to sense the need to be more considerate of individual thoughts and feelings.
When men prepare for the horrors and separations so innately prevalent in war, they hopelessly but desperately wish time could stand still. I preciously cherished the short time we had together as a family. Kay was totally sympathetic, understanding and unselfish as Sandy became the subject of my intense attention and joy. Though she could never understand, I urgently sought to capture her heart and as many memories as time allowed. I felt a pressing need to plant the seeds of fatherly love and tenderness that would forever grow. Though I intensified my efforts to proudly see her take her first step, she innocently clung to an inborn quality of stubbornness. She finally took her first step the day after I left for Vietnam. Only men who have gone to war can understand the desperation and heart-rendering impact that war and children have on family lives.
The horrible nature of war profoundly affects the inner soul of each family member. For Sandy, who could not comprehend the significance of Vietnam, life would go on as before. She would, at least for awhile, innocently and anxiously listen for my footsteps or voice in hopes of renewing the affection that we had joyfully forged. Slowly, as the days passed, she would meet new faces and find other interests, and the memory of me would gradually drift from her youthful mind.
PART II … Saying good-bye