Many times throughout our time in the Marine Corps my wife, Kay, and I spent countless days, nights and months talking about my frequent absences. When I wasn’t involved in training, I was touring much of the East Coast with an infantry squad for the purpose of recruiting Marines for military duty. She was a gallant lady who accepted the sacrifices without complaining. Because of her and daughter Sandy, I was eventually awarded a permanent officer commission and retired a major to pick up a new career.
Some Centerville folks still recall my family residing in Centerville for a year in 1975-1976, while I was deployed in Okinawa, Japan. While on my 30 day leave, I found myself running those same streets to stay in shape for new challenges.
Kay and I spoke little about the Vietnam War or the inherent dangers that it involved. We had, long before, prepared ourselves for the momentous emotional trauma of parting for the war. At night, when Sandy was asleep, we discussed the hopes and aspirations in which we shared for each other and Sandy. Each day always seemed remarkably too short, but every minute was preciously lived with compassion, warmth and tenderness. Neither Kay nor I possessed a feeling of regret or desolation for the destiny that was so near. Instead, we constantly maintained a subdued sense of pride, honor and duty at a time when these traditional patriotic values were under attack.
Most men, who have marched away to war, would probably agree that mothers and wives suffer the most. Though they do not experience the miserable conditions or the endless dangers of the battlefield, they live a life of loneliness, despair and fear. Through countless letters and many moments of prayer, they steadfastly maintain the love and devotion that are permanently made binding by birth or marriage.
Kay had both our families for some consolation and comfort, but families would not replace the man with whom she had religiously vowed to share a lifetime commitment. Like all mothers and wives, with sons or husbands fighting in a land so far away, she would cherish golden memories while living with endless torment and fear. Regardless of the sympathy provided by family and friends, she would suffer many gloomy days and sleepless nights from wondering and worrying about events in a land where violence found no end.
Days and weeks without mail, the seemingly ceaseless news about the war and the constant demonstrations against the war would only intensify her anxiety and suffering. My letters would provide a preciously brief and welcome relief from the pain of isolation and depression. There would always be the invariable and terrifying possibility of a somber-faced Marine Corps officer knocking on her door to deliver the most terrifying of messages. Through the year long periods of darkness, she would cling to the belief that hope, faith and prayer would bring us back together.
I knew that Kay would faithfully seek to make my role in the family an indelible part of Sandy’s memory. She would speak my name, show her my pictures and read my letters in an effort to maintain the relationship between father and daughter. Her earnest and devoted efforts would eventually encounter strange looks and increasing disinterest from an innocent face that had forgotten the past and knew nothing about the horrors of war.
Two decades later I clearly recognize and deeply appreciate the steadfast determination, many sacrifices and profound courage that Kay endured during that long and traumatic year. Through her continuous flow of affectionate letters and absolute total faith, I could better face the dangers of war while maintaining the belief that the hopes and aspirations we shared would become a reality.
On the day before our dreaded separation, I collected the few belongings that I would need. Knowing, as an infantry officer, there would be little need for luxuries or comforts, the list mainly consisted of basic essentials. I had known there was a great demand for experienced combat officers to fill critical leadership billets, and I knew my assignment would be with the infantry and as a company commander.
Packing for my long and lonesome journey was a family affair. While Sandy played in her crib, I shined shoes and prepared the uniform I would wear and Kay carefully scrutinized my list of items and meticulously packed my luggage. Through the excruciating agony that must have touched the very depths of her heart, she maintained a warm, tender and loving demeanor. When she realized that my religious medal was absent from the list, she dutifully hung it on the hanger with my uniform. The medal had been sent to me by a cousin during my first tour, and it became a permanent part of my life in the military. She also pressed a tiny Bible in the palm of my hand and whispered, “Please read it when you can.”
Kay and I could feel the unusually imposing tension in the air as we prepared to spend our last night together. Through the course of the day and well into the evening, I gave Sandy almost constant attention. We spent much longer than usual giving her a bath and preparing her for bed. Before finally tucking her into bed for the last time, I passionately held her little body in my arms, closed my eyes and said a silent prayer for us all. I would fondly recall that moment many times.
Later, Kay and I talked far into the night. Disguising our private thoughts, we carefully avoided any issues that would upset the delicately balanced mental and emotional strain that burdened our hearts. We talked about the past and present, because our future would begin after the looming dangers of Vietnam. We discussed the most pleasant memories of Sandy, family, friends and our life together. With the deepest sense of genuine sincerity, we expressed the mutual trust and affection that we dearly felt for each other.
Though we had long before prepared for the reality that was only hours away, I remember conjuring up enough courage to tell Kay, “Tomorrow will be the most heartbreaking and agonizing experience of our marriage, but you must not cry. For the benefit of the three of us but especially Sandy, we must be strong.” In almost a whisper, she stated that she would try with every ounce of her soul, but that she couldn’t promise. I knew that tears would eventually and naturally flow, but I didn’t want my departing memory of her to be distraught and weeping. I knew she was an extremely strong lady.
On the warm and sunny morning that I was to leave my family and go to war, there were few people at the Des Moines Airport and I was glad. I felt conspicuous in my uniform, and I wanted our farewells to be as private as possible. Kay’s parents, Joe B. and Mildred Sayres, had accompanied us to the airport. Though we had not discussed the reason for their presence, we all knew their purpose was to provide care for Sandy and soothe the sadness and grief that Kay would have to endure. I was extremely grateful for their presence and support.
After checking my luggage, we had a little time before taking the short but agonizing walk to the boarding gate where the United Airlines flight was waiting. Joe took a few family pictures and then graciously left us alone so we could have our last few moments in relative privacy.
Kay and I nervously and effectively masked our inner feelings that had settled at the very depth of our soul by concentrating on Sandy. Unknowingly, she became the catalyst that kept her parents’ emotions in balance. She was innocently unaware of the momentously sad occasion, and she was thoroughly enjoying the special attention I was affording her in that strange place. Her thin blond hair glittered, and her blue eyes sparkled with alertness, curiosity and mischief. She was putting on a show for me or anyone else who cared to watch. The brief but precious moments we spent together were filled with warmth and tenderness that is eternal. Vietnam was far removed from my mind.
When the airport announced that my flight was boarding, we intentionally delayed leaving for the departure gate so the other passengers would be aboard. We wanted no crowds, and I desired to be nearly the last passenger aboard. Kay and I had, long ago, decided to make our parting simple and rapid. Deliberately, grudgingly, and painfully, we finally proceeded to the boarding gate. For the last time in many long and difficult months, I carried Sandy with one arm and with the other, I firmly embraced Kay’s waist as we took that short but torturous walk.
At the gate, I presented my boarding pass to the attendant and asked him to afford me a brief moment of time. Turning back to Kay, I could see her eyes were filled with a confused mixture of pride, love, sadness and fear. There were no tears, but I knew she had reached the very limits of her emotional endurance. I very quickly gave Sandy a final but special hug and kiss, and handed her carefully back to Kay. With every ounce of strength and courage that I could muster, I embraced Kay with Sandy squeezed tightly in between. Kay’s voice was almost inaudible and clearly pleading, “Please takes care of yourself, my love.” I answered in a low anguished whisper, “I will. I promise.” I then turned away and walked quickly towards the airplane. With my heart sinking further with each agonizing step I couldn’t and didn’t look back, as I took those first few steps toward the frustration, bitterness and pain that was Vietnam.