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It was a cool autumn morning in West Berlin during the early 1980s when we lived in the center of the storm called the Cold War. Dad, then stationed at Field Station Berlin as the deputy commander, was reading through the newspaper. I was a sophomore at Berlin American High School — a great school that only exists in the memories of those who attended — and asked him a simple question, "Dad, did you ever kill anyone in Vietnam?" His short and crisp answer, "Yes."
We were studying the Vietnam conflict in history class and I had gathered the courage to ask my father — then a lieutenant colonel — who had served two tours in combat a question most American teenagers would never consider asking their parent. He was in the infamous Battle of Ia Drang as a very wet-behind-the-ears newly minted lieutenant and later on as a young captain after my older brother and I were born. So, there it was, my father had killed someone. I then queried him about the "why." "Because," he said, "Jo-Anne, it was better for some other bastard to die for his cause than for me to die for mine."
His reasoning lingered in my head for years and only after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, did I grasp his personal commitment to our nation. On that day I was serving our nation as a member of Secretary Colin L. Powell's staff at the Department of State as a political appointee in the George W. Bush administration. Looking back on that horrendous day, I remember the heroes — our first responders, those who helped strangers escape burning from buildings and remarkable passengers who fought to the bitter end over the skies of Pennsylvania. I shouted for joy as USAF jets raced along the Potomac creating a thunderous sonic boom as they provided protection to our nation's capital. And, the words of my father lingered in my head — "It was better for some other bastard to die for his cause than for me to die for mine."
At first my father's comment for those not baptized in the hellfire of combat seems cold, stoic or even selfish. As a teenager I did not fully understand his reasoning, but as a young woman I had complete clarity on 9/11 after seeing the Pentagon burning in the distance. What my father was trying to teach me was a lesson he learned after experiencing war firsthand — you've got to fight to the bitter end to ensure our way of life survives and endures.
Several years ago, I watched as my father leafed through his Fort Benning Officers Candidate School yearbook. Over the years he has carefully recorded the passing of his fellow patriots. Scattered across the black-and-white photos of fresh-faced men are scribble marks denoting "KIA," "MIA" and other information about their passing. And in that moment my father taught me another lesson — do not forget those who sacrificed their lives so you could live yours.