I’m sorry I didn’t take the time to ask. And then to listen.
I’m sorry I didn’t recognize earlier that you were suffering.
I’m sorry I was too busy with my own life and family to realize that I could have, should have, tried to understand.
Nearly 19 years have passed now since your burial, since that brutally cold early April day when I wrapped my arm around Mom in the wind-swept hilltop Vesta Cemetery. I felt her body shivering, shaking with grief as she accepted a folded American flag.
Moments like that imprint upon me as I remember you—husband, father, grandfather, son, brother…and veteran.
You were buried with military honors. The firing of guns. The mournful playing of taps. An in-ground military marker notes your final rank as a sergeant in the US Army. Awarded the Purple Heart, albeit 47 years after you were wounded on Heartbreak Ridge in Korea.
Today, on Veterans Day, I think of you. Honor you. And consider how fighting as a boots-on-the-ground combat soldier in the mountains of Korea forever changed you.
I recall the few stories you shared through the decades. You watched as a mortar killed your friend Ray, who was scheduled to leave Korea the next day. He left behind a wife and infant daughter. Dad, your grief led me to search for that “baby” two years after your death. I found Teri living in Iowa and with only minimal knowledge of her birth father. I have yet to meet her, but want to some day.
Some day. Days and weeks and months and years pass and then some day is too late. Now I hold a shoebox brimming with curled black-and-white photos and other items from your time in the Army. Your Selective Service System registration certificate. A well-worn mini black book of prayers, hymns and devotions from the Ladies Aid in Vesta. Faith and prayer carried you through many a hellish day and night in Korea.
In a letter to your parents, a copy tucked into a folder labeled “Korea” in my office file cabinet, you termed the war-torn Asian country a “hell hole.” Likewise, an over-sized embroidered decal declares “RETURNED FROM HELL.”
I have no doubt that war was hell for you. “Shoot or be shot,” I remember you saying. You spoke, too, of bitter cold, of hunger, of orphans begging for food across barbed wire fences. Of horrible war-time atrocities that I can’t bear to write here.
And then when you arrived home—bringing with you a folded memorial service bulletin from Sucham-dong, Korea, dated July 31, 1953, and including your buddy Ray’s name—the horror and grief you experienced remained. But few, if any, acknowledged your struggles back then. You were expected to resume life as usual, returning to rural Minnesota to farm the land, to milk cows, to marry and raise a family. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was not yet recognized.
I’m sorry, Dad. Sorry about the neighbor who laughed as you dove to the ground when a rifle fired during pheasant hunting.
I’m sorry, Dad, for the fear you felt when guns fired during a small town parade.
I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you like I should have been.
Near the end of your life, you found empathy and care in your veterans’ support group. That comforts me. Those men understood what you’d experienced. For that I am grateful. They provided the emotional support I failed to give you. I’m sorry, Dad. So sorry.
© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling