WATCHING THE WINTER OLYMPICS the past several days, I’ve felt a closeness to my deceased father. He walked this soil, this mountainous land so different from the flat, open farm land of his southwestern Minnesota home.
He landed here in 1952 with a ship full of other U.S. Army soldiers, gun in hand. A young man sent here by his government to fight on foreign land in a region that still is without solid peace. He fought on the front lines. Kill or be killed. Buddies dying. Explosions and hungry Korean orphans begging for food across barbed wire and him eating bark from trees and cold that felt even colder than the coldest of Minnesota winters.
When I see the blowing snow and rugged mountain ranges during Olympics coverage, I think of my foot solider infantryman father, ranging through and over those Korean mountains. Scared. Yet doing what he must to survive. Kill or be killed.
I think of him on Heartbreak Ridge, picking off a sniper who had taken many of his buddies. And I think of the fiery shrapnel piercing his skin and the Purple Heart he would claim decades later, when he was an old man. Because a fire had destroyed his military records. Because he had tucked most of his war memories away. Because no one cared about what happened on a Korean mountaintop in 1953.
I regret that I didn’t understand him and the inner turmoil he carried with him from Korea back home to Minnesota. I regret that I didn’t ask more about his war experiences, that I didn’t recognize the trauma he suffered as a result. I regret that healing never fully came, although he found understanding and solace in the company of other veterans with similar shared experiences late in life.
All of this I consider when I view the Olympic athletes in their designer clothing, medals around their necks, applause of crowds, praise of many.
All of this I consider when I see the sister of the North Korean dictator seated behind our Vice President.
All of this I consider when I view those Korean mountains flashing across my TV screen.
I think of my dad as I retrieve a shoebox full of his black-and-white Korean War era photos. I sit on the sofa filing through those curled images while Olympic athletes ski and skate and propel themselves down an icy tunnel. On the back of one photo, I read my dad’s cursive notation: me in Korea May, 53.
Sixty-five years have passed since he left Korea. I wish I could sit with him now, ask him about his time in Korea, about the stories behind those photos. Perhaps he would talk, perhaps not.
I wonder, would he turn off the television or would he watch the Olympians perform? Could he handle seeing the backdrop of those rugged mountains where too many of his buddies died? Would he flash back to the horrors of war?
The reality is that I can’t ask him. He died in 2003. But I can write. I can use my words to tell his story, to apologize for my lack of understanding, to honor him. And this I do as Olympians cross country ski, stop, sprawl stomach down, then fire their rifles in this land, this Korea. This land where my soldier father from Minnesota shot his weapon, too. Kill or be killed.
© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling