Chapter Five: Gail Hosking Gilberg/Snake's Daughter

Gail Hosking Gilberg was seventeen years old when her father, Master Sergeant Charles “Snake” Ernest Hosking Jr. died in Vietnam on March 21, 1967. He was forty-two years old and left behind four children and one ex-wife. His military career had spanned WWII and three tours in Vietnam. He had been a paratrooper and a member of Special Forces. His medals included 5 combat Stars, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, three Presidential Unit Citations, and the Congressional Medal of Honor. Yet, his daughter was ashamed to speak of his military service both while he was deployed and after he had died. Her mother had been only 16 and a farm girl when she married Hosking; she gave birth to Gail one year later. With the family destroyed by Hosking's death, Gail's mother eventually drank herself to death.
After keeping her grief locked up inside for over twenty years, Gilberg finally broke her silence, reliving a horrible sadness she had spent years trying to ignore. Gilberg claims that by writing her memoir Snake’s Daughter: The Roads In and Out of War she is "back in the field putting together my father's mutilated body, limb by limb, remembering what was once dismembered. I am removing the masks of secrecy, stoicism, and denial I learned as an army brat. I am offsetting this forced amnesia” (168). Gilberg found closure by speaking truth, by writing sorrow, fear and loss, and by remembering what it was like to grieve in silence and guilt, ashamed of her father and humiliated by her tears.
Gail grew up on military bases, and strongly feels that being brought up “inside the fortress” had a serious impact on her life and how she dealt with her father’s death. During her childhood, Gail had attended twelve schools and lived in base housing, all facts that if told to civilians would draw uncomprehending stares, or worse, pity. “My silence assured everyone I was just like them, that our lives had been the same…I wanted to describe life in the fortress, but I never knew where to begin” (162).
Gilberg remembers her life at Bad Tolz, a Cold War-era military base in Germany. She was in the fourth grade. The soldiers there were on constant alert for war with the Soviets. They would leave for work in the morning and perhaps not come home that night or for weeks at a time. Their families never knew when their soldier would be called to duty. The officers lived on one side of base and the enlisted lived on the other. Officers and enlisted soldiers did not mingle. Gilberg remembers that all the children went to the same school and played together there, but she was always aware of who was an officer’s kid and who wasn’t. When at home, they generally did not cross territory to play together. To associate with enlisted was a taboo (65). Gilberg learned early on that she was categorized and sequestered, the daughter of an enlisted man, who was considered of a lower class and rank. She learned that one’s social position was key for knowing how to behave, who to make friends with, and how to communicate one’s feelings with others.
She felt anonymous in the man’s world of the military base. All the base-sponsored swimming lessons and camping activities seemed as if they were just attempts to keep the kids out of the way. Defining the true status of a military dependent, the soldiers “could function without us, but we couldn’t without them” (158). Gilberg did not know what it meant to be an American. She learned about America from movies (as I did). There was no American television on base. Off base, surrounded by strangers who spoke another language, she felt “anonymous both to my country and to the foreign country in which I lived” (159). Her mother mitigated her own feelings of loneliness by being a good wife and finding fun on weekends, dancing and drinking with her husband to relieve the stress.
She remembers her father’s confidence as a mask he wore that also became part of her self-image: “This illusion of perfection and invincibility he carried around became second nature to me as well. As the years went by, I struggled with letting go of this notion. I was terrified of being left bare without the mask my father had shown me” (38). But underlying this mask was the reality: “There is an unspoken sense in the army that everything is ephemeral: friendships, peace, even my father’s life” (37). And after his death, loyalty to family evaporated.
Gilberg was raised with the idea that “you can find happiness and peace under the command of an omniscient power" (91). Her father was an authoritarian who held his children to a soldier’s standards of perfection. He conducted bedroom inspections and required the children to wear slippers in the house at all times. “We were destined to internalize his model” that perfection was possible, and she claims to have been frightened of him. Her mother warned the children to not tell their father of their mistakes. Gilberg grew up trying to meet his impossible expectations, expectations that she later struggled with as she tried to let go of her silence and free herself from the guilt of her bottled-up emotions (41).
Gilberg describes the base:
each building was the same, as was the lifestyle of those inside…Looking normal is the mask an army base uses to survive. The children playing, the women in coffee klatches, the mailman delivering mail hide what a stranger might see if he entered one of those doors. (43)
What would be found behind those doors is a constant state of readiness and a hypervigilant awareness (and paradoxically, a studied avoidance) of the world’s events and how they might impact the family. When will the soldier leave again? This was combined with an unspoken rule against asking the soldier questions about the reason for the war or the deployment (44). Entire families would discover they had only one month to pack up and move to another base. Gilberg remembers feeling rootless because of her family’s constant mobility. This nomadic existence led her to answer whenever people asked her where she was from that she was from “Everywhere and nowhere” (39). This still affects her to this day, as “that delicate balance of outsider and insider still tips one way and then the next after all these years” (39).
Gilberg remembers that the waiting wives weren’t allowed to have jobs or to express their opinions. They lived in a constant state of denial and stoicism. Often classified secrecy was involved, and a constant mask must be worn at all times, even when with their husbands or children (158-59). Children must be kept calm, happy and in check at all times. To express frustration or fear could upset the soldier and impact his mission readiness.
Gilberg wonders why her father had volunteered for a second tour to Vietnam. She believes that although her father’s friends told her that he had gone to war to fight for his family, his comrades, his country, and his mission, “in that order,” she believes that once he was in the jungle, “his comrades and mission filled his mind, while country and family faded into the distance of what used to be home” (92).
While her father was deployed on his last Vietnam tour, Gilberg moved back to North Carolina to live in a civilian community near Fort Bragg. She recounts how isolated and odd she felt when as a high school girl she “didn’t remember one person in that small midwestern town ever once speaking about the war” while her father was deployed (5). It is telling that Gilberg thinks of Fort Bragg as being a midwestern town, when it actually is located in a southern state. Perhaps she was referring not to the town's physical location, but to the mindset of those living there. She "kept a cheerful face with Girl Scouts, friends, school, pretending to the world and myself, particularly myself, how absolutely normal everything was. The subject of war or being a soldier's daughter never came up" (91). She was:
teaching strangers how big my smile could be. I taught them that war didn’t affect families and that daughters could be safe without fathers. I tried to teach my sisters that if we ignored the obvious empty chair at the table, by magic it wouldn’t affect us…I conveyed my teachings in silence. (96)
She claims that she had to “rewrite [her] personal script” (160). To do this, she “drew a line down the middle with my father’s army life on one side and our civilian life on the other, as if one touching the other would wash it all away” (Hosking 185). She felt “a stranger among those who had known each other all their lives…among those who had no real clue what the cold war meant” (160). She kept silent about her father’s deployment at her school. She could not explain to the civilians about the war because she wasn’t even sure about it herself, whether her father was on maneuvers or in a real war. The civilians around her were either uninterested or not involved in the war, or they had lost their loyalty to it. Her loyalty to her father conflicted with anti-war sentiment. As a teenager, she “numbed out” as news reports of the war escalated on TV. She was ashamed and did not want to be identified with the army or with Vietnam. She was ashamed to bring friends to her house in case they might see the hollowed-out mortar shells her father used as bookends (160-61). While her girlfriends were already wearing stockings and lipstick, she, having come from “the protected environment of guarded gates, still wore anklets and played with dolls” (160).
Gilberg remembers being unable to cry the day they delivered the news of her father’s death. Instead, she got dressed and went on a date. She carried that stoicism with her to college one year later. At college, she “tried to show that I could bear my father’s death. After all, hadn’t my life with the military taught me to ‘carry on’? Wasn’t I the real trooper my father taught me to be?” (7).
After he died, Gail became a “social chameleon,” keeping silent and anonymous when her friends reminisced about their lives in the sixties (162). She and her siblings had moved in with relatives because their mother could not take care of them. She remembers a social worker telling her that “People will be good to you in time of crisis…but they will help out for only so long” (117). Her aunt and uncle had children of their own, and Gilberg speculates many years later that their cousins had resented having to share their dinners, rooms, parental attention. Her cousins never spoke of the war or of her father's death.
Two years after her father's death, the White House invited Gilberg and her siblings to a ceremony posthumously awarding their father the Medal of Honor, the highest medal a soldier can receive. She remembers telling a professor why she needed to reschedule an exam, and the look on his face. She could not tell if it was “respect or disgust,” nor did she ask. She “added his look to the silence I carried” (161). She and her sisters never spoke about the war. When she returned from the ceremony, she told no one where she had been. At college, surrounded by protesters, she was “divided from myself, the protesters, and the soldiers, much the way my country was divided about the war itself. The only thing I knew was that the warriors were not faceless or inhuman” (162).
Gilberg relates that her grief would leak out unexpectedly throughout her life. One day she was driving and saw a Memorial Day exhibition in a park. The music she remembered hearing as a child and the familiar sight of a helicopter landing caused her to break out into tears (7). On another occasion, during the Gulf War, a group of military families were gathered in a park to welcome their soldiers home. As they were standing on a nearby porch watching, two of Gilberg’s friends discussed the situation. One said, “Isn’t it disgusting that they’re all there?” The other agreed and reported that her veteran brother-in-law had recently cried at a Veteran’s Day parade. “He’s still talking about that war! Can you believe it?” Gilberg reports that she stood speechless at their ignorance (44).
She recounts how she began to break her silence. She explains that it took her 26 years to “articulate a collected and collective shame and a silence [she] could no longer bear” (195). She had kept hidden her father’s photographs, feeling “as if my father's presence and his uniform would not be tolerated by anyone who entered my home” (163). When she went to the Wall for the first time, “It was the first time I allowed myself the public affirmation of having been part of that war, of having lost someone irreplaceable. I had not expected to feel anything at this wall…because I had grown accustomed to the walls around my own heart” (163). She refuses to involve herself with the SDIT organization and their Father’s Day events at the Wall in Washington DC. She fears that seeing the sheer numbers of them together will remind her that she is just a number, “just another grown child in a hotel convention room. Just another body returned in a bag” (145). She says she is occasionally overcome with feelings of rage:
My body tightens like an AK-47 rifle before it shoots, and I want to explode like the grenade that finally killed him. It’s as if I am like my father, continually mobilized for battle. Like soldiers driven to a berserk stage, I want to lash out at someone, I just want to kill. After my screams wind down and I’m resting the way I would after a long night’s reconnaissance, my eyes close and the years get buried again. (146)
She speaks of the “disease of secrets” that she grew up with, secrets of military men that a daughter should never be told (45). When her search for her father’s military record proved futile, the records archivist told her that the army had shredded tons of records; he called it the government’s “forced amnesia” (167). She writes that by shredding what her father had fought for, the country was preparing to move on to its next conflict before it looked closely at the war or asked too many questions of its leaders (167). She is angry at a country that seems too big to take on (169).
When she finally found soldiers who knew her father by advertising in two military newspapers, she relates how important their stories were for her to feel increasingly close to her father (147). Their stories about her father echo “what Homer knew so long ago, that telling stories is a healing art” (173). She writes that she keeps looking at endless books about Vietnam hoping to find her father in their pages. “Maybe I believe he will come to life for me through someone else’s words” (168). But the images seem to her propaganda – soldiers showing their strength, holding Bibles, eating cookies from home. She tries to write the truth and not what she knows the government would like her to write. Defiantly claiming that survivors cannot be silenced, she refuses to let the images have the same brainwashing effect “that the government had on us as a people” (168). She asks, “Just what does a daughter of a dead warrior do all these years later?” (169). Her answer is that by writing her memoir, she is finding her own lost identity, offsetting and retaliating against a nation who forgets. She is bringing her father back to life by finding his courage inside herself. She will not let her “children, like tiny ants on a trail of sugar, carry that silence into their futures” (174).
All of these war orphans risked great emotional pain to break the silence and write their stories. They both stand as living testimony that the devastation of war continues long after the coffin flags are folded. I know from personal experience that curiosity and longing for information about our fathers never really goes away. Many of us have had to wait until well into our adult years to receive information about our fathers. Gilberg had boxes of photographs to help her investigate and piece together a story that had almost been lost. Zacharias' mother had kept her father’s letters and telegrams for decades. She finally sent them to her daughter in December 2001, just four months after the destruction of the World Trade Centers, a horrible tragedy that they both knew would bring another war and create more orphans.
Zacharias is not the only war orphan who was affected in important ways by Sept. 11, 2001. Most all of those I have recently met say that that event woke up buried emotions and was the impetus for action, usually to seek information about their fathers. Zacharias writes that the words in letters can
“breathe life into a dead man and make a daughter remember her father’s voice. Words can resurrect time forgotten and love lost. Perhaps it’s only for a moment, but for a daughter who has spent a lifetime without her daddy, sometimes that is enough" (32).
So many orphans have expressed how important letters are to them. Also important are the stories told by soldiers who knew him. Zacharias longed to hear a first-hand account of how her father died. Her contact with his comrades was not always smooth, and was sometimes uncomfortable, but it was worth it. She writes that it was hard to hear about the battle where her dad died, but that she feels her fathers strength enabled her to "handle the toughest moments in the battle for truth" (317). And like so many others are saying today, she hopes that her work illustrates to policy makers the realities and the true costs of war.
As an adult, Zacharias visited Vietnam with SDIT to see where her father had died. There, she saw a three-story high statue of a woman in the center of Da Nang. Her Vietnamese guide, whose own soldier-father had died in the "American War," told her that the statue was a depiction of Hero Mother who represents all women who grieve the loss of their sons, husbands and brothers in the American War. He told Zacharias that the citizens honor her sacrifice by building the women houses and giving them gifts and money.
Recently, Zacharias's mother finally spoke about her experiences as a war widow. The new war in Iraq was her inspiration to speak. She claims she and others like her were denied permission to talk about how difficult their lives were.
Once he was buried, the Army was gone. Their whole attitude was 'We've done our duty'…I'd been an Army wife since I was sixteen. I didn't know how to be a civilian. Where do you go? Where do you live?... Once your sponsor's dead, you're not part of the Army anymore…you're totally cut off. I wanted to tell the Army: But you killed my sponsor! I think about it all the time. Especially now, what’s going to happen to all those guys who are coming back…from Iraq now and those who aren't? And their families?" (358)
A nation that denies the power of death, is focused on the locus and control of proper life, pities yet blames the unfortunate for their plight, and seeks to eliminate the weak is a nation of individuals who do not know what to do when faced with a war orphan. Can we hope that the new orphans of the Iraq War, whose numbers increase every week, will fare better?

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