My favorite memory of my father was him carrying me on his shoulders through the snow to get donuts. I had a lot of little brothers but I was the only girl and the oldest and I knew my dad loved me big time. My father was six foot five, this giant man with huge hands, that loved me, he was so happy and when he smiled at me I felt safe. Then he went to Nam. The first time he came home I didn’t notice a difference, though I’m sure there was one that a kid just doesn’t see. I know he was happy to go back. The second time he came back he was clearly uncomfortable and he was so sad. Now I know that I was seeing his thousand yard stare. As a kid, I just knew he was sad and I wanted to help him. He went back in country, but he wasn’t gone as long the third time. I don’t know what happened, I may never know, but whatever it was, it wrecked him completely. He came back a broken man strung out on Smirnoff and Phenobarbital. I was 6.
He brought home with him a kimono for my mother, it was red with this dragon embroidered on the back. She hated it, I thought it was about the coolest thing in the world. A Japanese samurai doll for me, complete with a little sword. Kites for all my brothers. And a big ass TEAC reel to reel tape deck with a stack of tapes. A couple were of the music of the times, wonderful songs that still speak to me. The rest were recordings of bombings, mortar fire, rifle fire, choppers and a bunch of other crazy stuff I can’t even identify, oh and lots of really scared young men screaming and crying, what do we do, what do we do, crying, fighting, cussing and screaming. Again I don’t know where these were from. At least one I suspect was near Saigon, but I wouldn’t swear to that, because I was just a kid. Anyway, my mom would go off somewhere with my brothers. My dad would get loaded on vodka and barbs, sit me on the stairs to the basement and play those tapes over and over and over. LOUD! I can remember sitting on the stairs and crying, my hands over my ears and being so scared that I had no idea what to do, clutching that god damn samurai doll.
By the time I was seven I knew how to disassemble, clean and reassemble a combat .45. I knew to never walk in a straight line anywhere or take the same route twice. I knew the difference between a hard target and a soft target. I knew to stay out of crowds and to always watch people’s hands. Trust in God, everyone else, show me your hands. I didn’t mind it so much. I knew not to touch him when he was sleeping because he would kick the end off the couch and come up fighting. I knew to make a little noise when I walked up to him so he would know I was there. I knew he was trying to teach me something I couldn’t possibly understand, I knew he was scared and scared for me and wanted me to be safe and I knew as kids always do that he was a mess. And if him teaching me all that stuff made it better, then it ain’t nothing but a thing, as he would say.
Eventually, as he decompensated, my mother divorced him, married another guy in his command who ironically was a bigger, albeit quieter and far, far more dangerous mess than my dad was. This new quieter model was treacherous. And believe it or not, all that crazy shit my dad had taught me held me in good stead because it kept this fucker off of me the vast majority of the time.
Flash forward several years. I am in nursing school, I’m 23, the same age as my dad when he went to Nam for the third time. We have a psych rotation at, wait for it, the VA hospital psych ward. And who is there? Oodles of Nam vets with PTSD. I’m sitting in a group listening to them talk and thinking to myself. I know those sounds, I know that feeling. Holy shit, who are these guys? I fit here. I am at home here. I belong here.
This is one of those moments that you know is going to change your life. I changed majors from nursing to psych, went on to get my degree and work for years at the Vet Center and with Vets, law enforcement officers, and civilians in a number of settings. Now I know that there are people who would say that was twisted. But let me share something with you. Those Vets did far more to save me, than I ever did to save them. I had no idea there were even women vets at the time, I can’t imagine how that would have been for me. I had someone in one of the groups who was a counselor too, his name was Butch Toland, a Nam vet, say to me, “Little girl, it was bad over there, I don’t know what happened to your daddy, but he was broken. He was just broken, he weren’t trying to hurt you, but he just didn’t know how to live in the world no more. That wasn’t your fault little girl, that was on him.” To this day, if I close my eyes, I can see him looking at me and speaking those words. I can tell you everything he was wearing, how he smelled, the look in his eye.
Those words healed me. All those groups that I participated in and “ran” healed me, though I had no awareness of it at the time. I became the kid that a lot of those guys had lost and I like to think that their kindness to me helped them let go of some of their pain and guilt and loss about their children too. It really does take a village to raise a child and I had a village filled with these loving, kind, twisted, awful, wonderful warriors! I told my good friend, the SEAL who asked me once about my affinity for the military and Warrior types. It wasn’t long after we first started talking. I told him that I was kind of the daughter of the regiment. I really am. I’m proud of that.
I tell you all of that to tell you this. I have had a blessed career taking care of warriors, their families and civilians. I feel honored to have been able to do that. Over the years I have held many secrets for many warriors, some tragic, some dark, and some filled with what ifs. I have cried, laughed and commiserated with warriors of every kind. I have watched them love, lose, fight, die, and learn to live again. I have truly loved them all. I know that I never served in Vietnam, but I did go through boot camp for it, and I did fight, and I know the silent darkness of the soul that wraps around you when the sun sets and you wait, silently still to see what moves in the night and if you will survive it. As a girl I thought that was a tragic thing. As a woman, I have great appreciation for it. It leaves me lonely, a lot, but I will take that bitter with the sweet of it. Because as hard as it is for Warriors to walk in the world. It is harder in so many ways for a Wahine Warrior. For we walk between two worlds and truly fit into neither.
My dad is dead now. His brokenness ate him away like cancer. I wish his name was on the wall, because although his body came back to the world, his soul died in country. My father, that carried me on his shoulders and played dolls with me, died somewhere in Vietnam. Some hybrid pod person that took his place came back. He told me before he died he was sorry for any harm he caused me and that he didn’t do a better job at being a father, and that he had let me go and by that had put me in harm’s way. He told me too that I had grown to be a fine warrior in my own right and he was proud of me. To hear that from him, it meant everything. I loved him the way only little girls can love their daddy. Just so, so much. He taught me things that saw me through many life threatening situations and made me an exceptional clinician. He taught me the ability to accurately and rapidly assess any situation I might find myself in. To learn from those who had gone before and teach the ones that would follow. He taught me honorable rules of engagement and to always fight to win. To move forward without hesitating. To honor and mourn but to always move forward while doing it. That got me through putting two kids of my own in the ground.
I miss him now that I am old enough to really appreciate his hollowness and his hope and fears for me. I wish I could talk to him, because at my age now with my experience now, I have some hollowness of my own and so a greater appreciation for his.
Anyway, that’s my story. And my father’s. I wish I could thank every one of those vets who in my 20’s nurtured and loved me and accepted my experience and adopted me as one of their own. And whether it is my dad, or those Vets, or you, fellow warrior, that I battle beside, know that this place where our minds and heart live, it’s my home, it’s the biggest part of who I am. And, honestly, I don’t regret it. Not one moment of it. But I do think sometimes and I do wonder, who would I have been without those experiences? Would I have been just a regular girl, that had a regular life, with a regular husband, who just wanted regular things? Would I have learned to be at peace in suburban settings instead of feeling more comfortable in strange and exotic places? Would I not feel so goddamn lonely sometimes? I don’t know. I do know that I love you, Daddy. Thank you for trying to prepare me for my life. And thanks for the samurai, I still have him. He became my remembrance of you and the symbol of my life.