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Missing in Action: The Ghost Fathers of Vietnam

VietnamOnly one of my fathers went to Vietnam. The father I didn’t know. Still don’t know. The biological one. The dad who raised me couldn’t go because he had flat feet. Lucky me. Lucky him. From what I understand, the Vietnam War wasn’t exactly “fun.” The father I grew up with carried a bittersweet remorse about the fact that he was rejected from the draft, because so many men his age were sent to war, including his twin brother. Though I’m sure he was glad to have escaped being exposed to the traumas his brother(s) faced, I think he had some survivor guilt. Why should anyone have had to experience that horror?

I wasn’t conceived until my biological father – the one I don’t know – had already come home from the war. I don’t know much about his time there, just that he was there, and that it “messed him up,” like it did everyone who went. I know he drinks a lot. And drank a lot. I know he left my mother when I was born because he wasn’t ready to be a father. He was probably in his mid-20s when I was born. That’s how old my mother was, anyway. I know he never showed up in family court when it was time to settle the divorce, custody and visitation matters, and later he was asked to legally give up his parental rights, which he did. I know he went on to have two more daughters, and that one of them died. I recently connected with one of his daughters online – possibly the only other living one, but who knows, there may be others – and that she lived with him for a time while growing up. She told me stories about his drinking, and her driving him home from the bar at age 12. Because of the partying she was directly exposed to, she grew up living fast and getting sober in her early 20s. She’s a mom now. She still sees her dad from time to time. I’ve seen pictures of them together, at his fourth wedding, I think? There were cans of beer in some of them, I remember.

I could probably meet my Vietnam vet dad at this point if I wanted to, especially since my Dad-dad is dead. In fact, I can almost hear my Dad-dad saying from beyond the grave, “Go meet the poor bastard.” He’s hurting, I know, my biological father, like all alcoholics do. He called me once when I was in high school, not to apologize for missing out on my life, but to tug at my heartstrings, to make me feel for him. My feelings about this myth of a man are equal parts empathy, apathy, resentment and curiosity. I know how to recognize a narcissist now from 50 feet away, and I understand in the best way anyone can without having gone through a war just how wounded he is. I have been dealing with the walking wounded my entire life, and the thing that keeps me from meeting this soldier is that I don’t want to have to feel for one more traumatized person who is erratic at best and toxic at worst. Even if he is my dad.

In a way, I know I’m lucky to have lived without this father, especially since I ended up having a great dad of my own. Daughters of Vietnam vet fathers write of their childhoods on support websites, admitting that now into their adulthood they remain unhealed. One woman wrote:

To rid the torment of childhood? To not remember the physical, emotional, and sometimes sexual abuse in the home. There is no pill for that. The glossy pretty websites dedicated to helping the “kids troops” is a constant reminder that our country will continue not to really see post traumatic stress as what it really is. When the news gives us pictures of the “welcome reunion”, we know the fear. The alcoholism, drug abuse, hiding in your closet, walking on eggshells,  your Mom being thrown down the stairs….the unwelcome sexual advances of a predator that doesn’t remember you as a daughter.

Post traumatic stress can not be felt in textbooks or in your diagnostic statistical manual. It’s felt in homes all over this country. We know the horror and we feel the war all over again, the war at home. We are skipping an entire generation of grown adults that can tell you all what it really means to grow up with post traumatic stress, the illness runs deep…as deep as the blade cuts into your skin trying to purge the demons out.

On another forum, a woman who was diagnosed with secondary PTSD wrote, “I love my dad. I’ve heard stories about him before he went to ‘Nam and he sounds like he was a very gentle man. I wish I knew him then. The dad I love is a very damaged shell of a man who flinches every time a car backfires.” On that same forum, another woman says:

I am the daughter of a Vietnam Vet. I cannot begin to express the torment, anguish, pain and emotional instability and turmoil I endured while growing up. My father and I are estranged and haven’t spoken in four years. What’s funny is that I don’t even really know why we don’t speak. My father was a very abusive, controlling, angry and deficient parent who wanted no part of wanting to get to know me or what I was about. My father was just a paycheck and my mom was the one who raised us (I have a 40 year old brother.) I can tell you my father’s PTSD has significantly affected me and my ability to relate to or maintain connections with people, and that unfortunately includes my marriage.

The Atlantic published a piece today titled Retiring the Vietnam Vet Stereotype that doesn’t really succeed in doing what the headline suggests. Instead the article focuses on how post-9/11 vets are getting more of the services all veterans need, but it doesn’t say much about the suffering of Vietnam vets and their families or disprove their suffering as we have come to understand it through Vietnam-era films and folklore. The Chicago Tribune, however, published a piece about how retirement has forced some otherwise outwardly functional Vietnam vets in their 60s to seek treatment for late-in-life nightmares and flashbacks. Bill Simon, a 65-year-old Vietnam vet, told the paper, “For many years, I never had any issues.” But, the Tribune notes, “about 10 years ago, the nightmares returned. Night after night, they became more vivid and more bizarre.” Simon says, “Regardless of whatever I start dreaming about, the dream always mutates into some Vietnam incident. They’ve gotten progressively worse. Right now, I barely sleep.”

According to the Tribune, “An estimated 2.7 million men and women served in Vietnam.” Many of them have children my age, and grandchildren my daughter’s age. Even the men and women that came home from the war and parented and lived in a way that seemed functional likely suffered from buried PTSD all along, according to experts. The children of Vietnam vets who had parents that didn’t fall into drug use and alcoholism and instead “buried themselves in work,” as one vet told the Tribune his coping strategy was, they are the fortunate ones. But no matter how our parents who fought in Vietnam learned how to cope, they came home fractured, and it fractured our families in a way that has largely gone unspoken. A story shared on this site by a man named Doug really illuminates the lingering, mysterious trauma so many children of the ghost fathers of Vietnam feel:

My father was in Vietnam when I was born. By all accounts, he came back a changed man. He became a violent alcoholic and could not find his place in the world. Eventually, in 1981, when I was 11, he killed himself. I have lived with that ever since. I battle depression and many of the same demons he faced. The war in Vietnam will never be over for me. I hope to go there someday and honor my dad’s memory. I wish for peace for all so that no children on any side should have to suffer.

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