04 May 2012

The Things We Carry Still

When I was in either high school or college, my kid brother and I were nosing around in a basement storage area of the Sherpa family home. In the dark, there were a few bags stuffed with Vietnam-era military gear, surplus left over from our father's time as a navigator on a U.S. Air Force cargo plane.

By the time of our basement explorations, Dad had left active duty, and was flying with the reserves. Unlike my brother Rain, I remember our family being in the active Air Force. I remember my shock when schoolyard playmates laughed at the way I said that just now: "My family is in the Air Force."

They laughed, didn't understand what I meant, said I couldn't possibly be in the Air Force.

I, in turn, didn't understand why they didn't get it. Didn't figure it out until I was an adult.

Now, a couple of decades and deployments later, I can better articulate the sentiment: One person wears the uniform, but the whole family serves.

Rain was born on a base in Florida, but probably was barely out of diapers when we left the Air Force. He didn't remember the flight suits and the black boots, the big cube bags and the poncho liners. Come to think of it, in the basement that day, I might've been foraging for those poncho liners. I might've already signed up with the Army by that point, to help pay for the back-half of college. Rain and I used to build tents out of the camouflage-patterned, quilted nylon blankets. When I joined the Army, I'd wanted to take them to the field.

Eventually, when I found them, Dad told me I'd have to get my own. The tactical blankets had gotten him through Vietnam, he said, and he wasn't about to give them up.

That day in the basement, we also found a couple of presentation cases containing medals and citations. Rain didn't know about these. I'd found them once before. There's a Distinguished Flying Cross (D.F.C.) in one of them—an award recognizing "heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight"—and a narrative about how, as a young man, my father used his sextant to monitor the damaged tail of the C-130 Hercules in which he was a crew member. The tail had been hit by lightning.

To this day, I have yet to ask my father about that medal. Or that moment in the air, when he might not have come home.

I remember not wanting to know for certain. While the just-the-facts citation made it all sound almost routine, Dad might've been a hero. He might've also had a close call. At the time, I preferred to imagine the former possibility, and to ignore the latter. Young men are immortals, after all, and their fathers should be, too. As long as they can.

I should ask my father about that medal someday soon. I have my own footlocker now. My own war stories. My own military baggage.


In keeping with director Sam Fischer's objective that the movie "Memorial Day"
become a catalyst for conversations between generations, social media efforts regarding the film's upcoming release have often posed the question: "What's in your footlocker?"

The movie centers on a conversation between a 13-year-old boy and his grandfather, about the latter's World War II experiences. In the publicity trailer, the grandfather narrates:
I kept things from the war. And then I kept them from my family. Myself, too, I guess. Some people call them 'souvenirs.' ... I don't know. To me, a souvenir is a foul ball at a baseball game. These are fragments of memory ... shrapnel.

In combat, you start to question what's real and what's not. You take things along the way. Because if those things were there, then ... you were there. And it really happened.

I didn't loot. And I didn't steal. I collected things that would help me remember. What I didn't count on was: They don't let you forget.

In a recent essay that appeared on Doonesbury's "The Sandbox," Iraq war veteran and author Colby Buzzell talks of finding stacks of slides his Vietnam-veteran father had taken while on foot patrol. His father was still alive, and they walked through some of the images together:
The dusty photo projector we were ready to give to Goodwill miraculously fired right up, so we decided to take a break from packing and go through the photographs. Beaming onto our living room wall were these beautiful shots of the Vietnam countryside, and shots taken from my father’s point of view while on foot patrols. He narrated the slides for me and as he saw different guys in his platoon, a warm smile would come to his face as he recalled old friends that he hasn’t laid eyes on in decades. We came to a shot of four or so young soldiers casually smiling, proudly standing around a bunch of captured weapons that, my father said, they discovered while searching a village.

His smile slowly disappeared. He remained silent for a second or two as he just furrowed his brows and studied the photo. Then he told me that all of the guys we were looking at were killed two days later during an ambush.

After that, it was time get back to work and look at those slides some other time, which of course we never did. I’ll always wonder what else was there. I imagine my father and I are part of a tradition of soldiers who have gone to war, taken a series of photographs and returned home to file them away, never to be looked at again.

Stars & Stripes has launched a campaign to collect stories of service inspired by physical objects. The newspaper plans to publish the stories to celebrate Memorial Day 2012:
After more than a decade at war, chances are someone you knew, perhaps someone you loved, has given their life in military service to this country. But they aren't gone, not entirely. You have memories to call upon to bring them back to you, and you have physical objects that are a constant reminder of your fallen service member. Maybe a set of dog tags, an old T-shirt, a pickup truck or a tattoo.

To mark Memorial Day, Stars and Stripes wants to hear about your mementos and the people and stories that will forever be linked to them.
Click here to share your stories.


The Omaha World-Herald is collecting stories and pictures of Nebraskans and Western Iowans who served in the Armed Forces during the Cold War, including the Korean and Vietnam Wars, Strategic Air Command, Germany, and elsewhere. Some of the narratives will be featured in a book, similar to one published on World War II, while others will appear in the newspaper and online.

Click here to share your stories.

You can also e-mail your memory and photo to: atwar.athome@owh.com

Or mail to: Dan Sullivan; "At War, At Home" blog; Omaha World-Herald Building 1314 Douglas St., Suite 700 Omaha, NE 68102-1811

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