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The Youngest Son Speaks Out

Warriors, otherwise known as “Lifers” to the draftee or single enlistment trooper, know and accept the risks of their profession.  Death rides on their shoulders in peace or in war.  Half of my NavCad Preflight Class [19-55] have gone to their eternal reward.  Most of them bought the farm in peacetime accidents rather than in combat or old age.

What many folks lose sight of are the sacrifices the wives and children of the warriors make in support of the pursuit of national policy determined by faceless elected officials as well as their unelected civilian staffers and appointees. After all, they did not sign an enlistment contract or accept a commission. Let me share with you the thoughts of  the youngest of  my three sons coming to grips with his warrior father’s existence when that son was about age fifteen. They are expressed in a school writing exercise of some kind.

The “Meeting” of My Father
Charles A. Stratton

Most people never have a chance to “meet” their father.  There is usually no one time in a person’s life when your mother points to a stranger in a hospital room and says “This is your father.”  But that is how I met my father.

On the day after my first birthday, my father left on an ocean cruise.  He was a Lt. Cmdr. in the Navy, and an aviator.  Our family did not see him again for the next six and one-half years.  For during that period, he was a Prisoner of War in Vietnam.

I have no remembrance of my father in those days, for I was too young.  I can’t say that I missed him then, for I had not comparisons to make between having or not having a father.  My brothers, both of whom are older than me, were better able to understand what happened while he was gone.

I suppose that most people would not be able to accept a stranger who suddenly wants to fill a void in their life, but because my mother, over the years, had constantly kept faith that my father would return, I was able to accept his coming.  We often had discussions of what it would be like when “dad” came home, and I even have photographs of my brother and I in front of a poster we had made proclaiming “Come home soon, dad!”

Thus, on that cool March day when I, for the first time in my recollection, saw my father, I was excited, but not scared.  He had to come to a hospital first for a long series of tests and special diets, so that is where we visited him.  He arrived in an ambulance, and made a speech before the large crowd that had gathered to welcome him and some other returning POW’s.  Then we met him in his room.

I distinctly recall the look of the room: the sunlight streaming through the window onto the bare floor, the white walls - and my father sitting in his uniform on the bed.  My mother rushed forward to him, while we kids hung back with the little presents we had brought.  My mother beckoned us over, and my father accepted the gifts gravely, thanking us as he took them, eyes on us all the while.

He stayed in  the hospital about two weeks, while friends and relatives from all over came to visit us.  We [the children] were entertained with movies in the Officers’ Club, where also later my father gave my mother a birthday party.  He had arrived home on the fourth of  March and he arranged first thing for a surprise party.  He arrived to the house a few days later.

The thing that has struck me most about our meeting, after the event, is that there was a total lack of strangeness between us.  It was not as if I was meeting a stranger, but as if I were greeting my father whom I had known all my life, home from a long trip.  This I suppose can be attributed to my mother’s keeping him alive in our home.

It has been eight years now since my father has returned.  Every March 4th we celebrate his “Freedom Day” with a private Mass and a few friends.  There has been a book written about his experience “Prisoner At War” and also  a television documentary in San Francisco.  But even after all this time, only now have my brothers and I been able to completely accept our father back after his long and painful absence.  Other than speeches my father makes, gathering of Ex-POW’s and or course our annual celebration of “Freedom Day”, we do not talk about it much.  It is a thing of the past.  But it is not forgotten.  The ordeal has left its mark on our family for many years to come.  But I am content.  For I have met my father.

Well Charles was optimistic.  The mark of Cain is still there. At age 35 he seems to be still trying to piece it all together as do I at age 68.  The wonderful welcome home that this country gave its POW’s was a double edged sword.  The resultant notoriety made it certain that there would be no “normalcy” in our family.

The world of medicine has a label for my angst, a hook to hang things on, a framework with which to work.  It is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD].  But there is no such framework for the wife or the sons of a Warrior.