What my father could never tell me: The Vietnam Interview
My father and I have *never* had a good relationship. I’ve spent the better part of a lifetime trying to figure out why he was the way he was—impatient, temperamental, moody, and the tendency to go from 0-360 in seconds—especially when it involved me. Out of myself and two brothers for some reason it was my father and I that could instantly ignite an inferno. Over the years mistakes have been made, a lot of hurt has piled up in dark, dank places. Although in recent years we have begun to heal old wounds, one word was always persisted in the back of my mind: Vietnam. I’ve always wondered whether his behavior and our tendency to spontaneously combust had anything to do with that. This “tough it out, don’t cry, be strong” mentality he instilled in me. This weird way he would startle easily and get agitated over the smallest things. Things I thought were of no consequence, stupid stuff. Something always seemed amiss. I used my time at Northern Arizona University to not only take a Chicano History course to understand my culture and his years as a child, but I also took a few courses about Vietnam—the politics of the war, as well as the social side—the side experienced by the soldiers, their families, how the media portrayed the war, and how the people of our nation reacted to the war and to the men and women who selflessly served during one of the worst campaigns in recent history.
I came away with a new understanding of the Vietnam experience, the politics behind it, as well as how expertly the media here in the states twisted and turned and refashioned the war for the American public to see and read. I learned about the lasting effects of the war on the veterans, and how poorly they were received when they came home from their tours. I speak often of the Vietnam veterans I have encountered as a nurse and on the streets—the ones that continue to wander, stuck in time, and forgotten—their minds left back in a place they can no longer get to. I’ve said more than once how much it infuriates me that we failed these men and women and how much I want to make up for that in my own way. My ultimate goal as a nurse “WAS” to use my Adult NP as a means to open my own heart failure clinic and a free health clinic for veterans. Obviously there has been a big AXE taken to those plans so I am going to find another way to do my part as a way of making up at least a small part of what we did not give these vets when they stepped off the planes for the first time…battle weary, broken, confused, tired, displaced, and sick with memories that they would live with forever.
Despite the classes, the books, the documentaries, the stories relayed to me by numerous patients over the years I still felt there was a piece missing with regard to my father, my understanding of him, and why our relationship was always so difficult, discombobulated, and disconnected. I needed his story. I needed his memories. I needed to understand what happened to him over there….what he experienced, heard, felt, smelled, saw…..He never would talk to me about Vietnam. In fact, when I was younger my mom told me that one day he had gathered up a box of memorabilia from his tour of duty, went to my grandparent’s house and proceeded to dump it all in a big metal drum in the alley– setting fire to all of it. His efforts were in vain….burning it did not make anything leave his mind. My mother shared with me that I am the only one of us kids that has persisted over the years in studying the war and trying to learn more from my father. Call it my own little mission I guess. But, I felt I had missed out on a part of who my father was—the part that the war took from him and took from me as his daughter.
In 2009 the Voces Oral History Project was started at the University of Texas. Its purpose was to “foster a greater awareness of the contributions of Latinos and Latinas who served in World War II and Vietnam.” In World War II approximately 250,000-750,000 Latinos and Latinas served in all areas of the military. The Project has actually been gathering data and stories since 1999 having compiled “850 interviews with men and women, thousands of photos, publishing three books on the subject, and increasing awareness via numerous exhibits.” My father was one of eight Vietnam veterans selected from Arizona to be interviewed so that he could share his memories…among them the day he got summoned for duty, the night he walked off the big transport plane to their base camp—magazine loaded and weapon ready to fire (there was conflict right from the start) and numerous other experiences.There were three segments in the video: Life story, enlisting and battle, coming home and readjusting/rebuilding a life. Each veteran was asked to share something they had learned in life, something to pass on to anyone who viewed his/her story.
I didn’t know this video existed until I asked my mom for any pictures remaining from Vietnam that I could use for my ongoing research. In the process she found this video, dated August 16, 2010. She said that there was only one segment on it and was disappointed that no more videos came so they could watch the whole interview. I was skeptical about this, thinking to myself that they probably didn’t fast forward far enough…..fortunately, I was right. She went out to the backyard, DVD in hand, and I watched her ask my father if I could view it. I saw his jaw tense, watched him toss the hose he was using to water the flowerbeds to the ground, shaking his head, hands on his hips. Then there was the familiar stance when he gets irritated, arms folded, pursed lips. I watched my mom motioning with her hands and I knew she was pleading my case. He quickly nodded his head and turned his back to her, picking up the garden hose again. I had my mom’s blessing—at least.
I was unsure about watching this video, perhaps scared about what I would learn or discover about my father and his experiences. This knowledge, this last piece of the puzzle between he and I—had been years in the making.I took the incidental discovery of the DVD by my mom as a sign that it was time to close the circle so the healing could continue between my father and I. Before my dad could change his mind I tucked the DVD away in my purse, hugged my mom goodbye, and headed home with racing thoughts and some hope that this might be what would help me see my father in a whole new perspective and what my place was as his daughter, his first born.
After picking up some dinner for me and Anaya I popped in the DVD, we settled onto the couch to eat, and clicked “play.” I was in no way prepared for what I would see, or what I would hear from my dad, or how I would become profoundly affected by his recollection of events. To say the experience of watching him on the television screen, his nervous body language, his discomfort with some of the questions, his fidgeting….and at times, the obvious efforts to hold back emotion was difficult is putting it lightly.
I was fascinated to hear about our family history, his days growing up, the political unrest of living in the barrio and the segregation of blacks, Hispanics, and whites, as well as how he assimilated into a mixed high school learning how to speak English so he could learn more. I learned his goal was to be a business mogul someday….Vietnam was the “someday” that arrived first….forever altering the determined path he had set for himself so he could get out of the poverty ridden barrios of South Phoenix. He had finished just one year at Phoenix College.
My father’s journey to Vietnam actually came by chance. Although he was drafted and enlisted, he didn’t mind going. He wanted to be part of something important for his country and felt going to fight was the “right thing to do.” He felt he would regret not doing his part as an American—and that if he did not serve and “do the right thing” he would live with regret and shame for not doing so. He was actually slated to go to Germany after basic training…but at the last minute, his orders changed. He was sent to Fort Benning to go through “jungle training” and would be deployed to Vietnam shortly thereafter. This is where the second and most difficult segment of the video begins. My father relays the one quote he remembers from the “pep talk” given to them before they boarded the big military plane bound for Vietnam: “Some of you will not make it back.” It was the moment everything became “real.”
I learned about the experiences he was “willing” to discuss—the racial tension in the tents, the frequent fighting, times he had been injured, escaped death, was pinned down in a bunker at night under fire while he was doing his night “guard shift.” He described, with swallowed emotion, the death of his best friend who was shot in the head. When asked what event stuck with him the most, he became silent, looking downward. With a deep breath he tells of an attack on a nearby major weapons depot at 0400, waking him up out of sleep. The depot was stocked with massive amounts of artillery, bombs, rockets—everything. With vivid recollection he paints the scene: The sky lighting up in fire. The confusion of his unit as they struggled to get their flak jackets and weapons loaded. When the Vietnamese blew up the depot, many were killed and they had to take cover for days because bombs and other devices were continuing to be set off by the initial bombing and flames. On one of those days, my dad had decided to take a peak outside his tent because it had quieted down…as he did so, a short distance away he remembers seeing a “miniature atomic bomb” go off, the sound louder than anything he could ever describe. He felt the earth beneath his feet shaking violently, and how the earth seemed to shake with more violence as the effects of the bomb got nearer to their base camp. He was caught up in this explosion, along with the entire basecamp—and was injured. With carefully measured words he recalled seeing the bombing of the depot, the bomb going off a short distance outside his tent, and being a part of this massive explosion as the event that impacted him the most. Afew days after his return to the states he would learn that his base camp was overrun, the VC had dug tunnels underneath it, killing all of his remaining comrades.
An especially moving part of my father’s story was the experience of realizing his tour was up… the few short days before he was to return to the United States. He described his level of anticipation, his relief, and his elation at the prospect of leaving Vietnam….of SURVIVING what many of his brothers did not. His recollection of seeing the Pan Am airliner for the first time was the most poignant. He relays, in vivid detail how he and his comrades cheered as the plane came into view, landing, to take them home. He also smiles as he recalls the cheers of all the men on the plane as the airliner took to the air. But he also felt a twinge of guilt as he caught a view of a military plane that had just landed and was unloading fresh troops to begin their tours. The stewardesses, the “American Women” were a “beautiful sight for sore eyes.” What the battle fatigued and traumatized soldiers were not prepared for was the unsavory welcoming they would receive when they landed in the states…a place they used to know as “home.” In Vietnam, the soldiers were never clued into the political climate in the states. They had no idea that there were protests, or ugly pictures painted on TV screens and magazine covers all over the country portraying their “supposed” activities. They had no warning. Their much dreamed about first steps off the plane on their home soil…were met with signs of protest and crowds yelling “murderers and baby killers.” The feelings of rejection and betrayal, he says, were overwhelming. My father marks those moments as the “beginning of knowing I was never going to be the same person I used to be, that I might not ever fit in here ever again, that I might not ever be able to connect like I used to.” “The war took something from me, I was never the same.” After being met at Sky Harbor airport with a much more loving reception than his previous landing in San Francisco, my father went home with his family. In the first few days home he recalls noticing a very “loud” feeling of being “numb and totally disconnected from everything and everyone.” There was the constant question of “Now what?” My father also discusses (rather cautiously) his struggles with PTSD, how it’s affected him, his family, thinking that it started the day of the bomb and never left him.
Of the entire three hour interview, these were some of the most emotional stories/memories. What I was not expecting, what brought me to tears, were the last ten minutes of the video when he talked about me. His daughter. He said things about me, about my life, my accomplishments, his overwhelming pride about watching me get off of welfare, raise my daughter alone, while getting both a Bachelors and Master’s degree. At one point, he swallows his emotions and struggles to talk. As I hear these words I am overcome with emotion and begin sobbing. He has never said these things to me; he has never said these things about me in my presence. This moment is the first time I have heard my father talk about how he really feels about the person I am, the mother I am, and how proud he is of me as his child.
The ending of the video follows shortly thereafter…and the irony of his last statement comes at a devastating and life altering time in my own life. The interviewer asks my dad to share something he learned by his experiences in Vietnam and coming home and having to rebuild his life again:
“ I think anybody watching this video should remember to do what feels right, if you know what the right thing to do is, do it…because those choices become part of you, part of your life forever…”
He wipes away a single tear and grows quiet as the camera remains on him. A faraway look comes over his face as he stares quietly past the camera.
The television screen goes black.
Tears run down my face…Naya sits in silence holding my hand.
Now I understand it all…
Children Of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance