Veterans Day is also their children's day

On Nov. 11, 1921, an unknown soldier from World War I was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on a hillside overlooking the Potomac River. Since then, thousands upon thousands of Americans have fallen in service to this country from the beaches of Normandy to the streets of Somalia to the sands of Iraq. Some wars were clear, some mishandled, but all share this: The American warrior answered when called.

In 1962 my father, a 28-year-old flight surgeon in the United States Air Force, volunteered to go to Vietnam. He felt duty-bound to serve the country that had provided his parents with a refuge from an intolerable Eastern Europe. He spent 13 months there on the other side of the world.

So he went, and he returned. I wasn't born until 1969, yet it seems I've been aware of his time overseas since birth. Frankly, I can't think of a time when I didn't know he wore the uniform. Vietnam simply hung around the corners of our life, and over the years I learned that children of veterans carry their parents' war.

The grandchildren of those who served in World War II usually receive instant adulation for their relative's part in liberating the world. That wasn't the case for me. While growing up, I would get a variety of responses when anyone learned my father had served in Vietnam. From my peers there were the clichés - baby killer, crazy vet. From adults, I'd often get a look that conveyed disapproval wrapped in sympathy, or, the inevitable line: "Oh, he was there early, nothing was happening yet." Tell that to the loved ones of those whose names are carved on the first panel of the Vietnam Memorial.

I'm intensely proud of my father and his service to our country. But I also know the time he spent in Vietnam now resides in every partof his being. And so I spent much of my youth searching for the meaning behind those silences that periodically interrupted a conversation. I devoured all sorts of fare with a Vietnam theme. I read "A Rumor of War" and "Street Without Joy." I'd read paperback thrillers so long as Vietnam popped up on the pages. I tuned in to "MASH" and "China Beach." I watched "Apocalypse Now" and "Deer Hunter."

So determined was I to know this person, I wrote my junior-year high school term paper about My Lai. My graduate school degree thesis focused on Vietnam's wartime doctors and nurses. In college, my jogging route frequently led me past the Memorial where I'd check the names to see if circles had been carved around the crosses that signify a missing soldier, hoping that soldier had been found alive. I'd play mind games: What if my father hadn't leaned over when the bullet whizzed through the helicopter? What if he hadn't made it to a hospital after the jeep accident? I've come to think we children of Vietnam veterans suffer our own brand of survivor's guilt.

Finally this summer, I thought our country could begin moving away from Oliver Stone's vision of Vietnam. As I watched Sen. John Kerry speak on the last night of the Democratic Convention, it seemed possible the rest of America would finally understand these troops served bravely and no longer needed to pay the price of political miscalculation. Perhaps this time our nation would see that American soldiers pull on their boots and face the fight no matter what political debate rages back home.

I was wrong.

The tenor of the presidential race once again cast Vietnam Veterans as a bickering bunch of hot-tempered, dishonorable men.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the US troops in Iraq who are the subjects of dinner conversations across America. I also think about their children, who will hear the criticism, absorb the stereotypes, and even become the unwilling and undeserving targets of a nation's divisiveness. How easy it is in the cozy confines of our homes to debate this war that has so polarized our nation.

Next summer, I will accompany my father back to Vietnam, along with my husband, my children (ages 6-1/2 and 3-1/2), my mother, my brothers, and their wives. It will be a chance to "see where Grandpa battled," as my son puts it. Perhaps it will also be a chance for me to leave some turmoil behind and have my own Armistice Day of sorts.

Cathryn J. Prince, a freelance writer, is author of 'Shot from the Sky: American POWs in Switzerland.'

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