I come to the subject of U.S. war orphans through a combination of personal experience and intellectual curiosity. I lost my father to the Vietnam War when I was twelve years old. The oldest of three girls, I fully remember the initial trauma and the insidious aftermath.

My father's chopper was shot down by a sniper on Thanksgiving Day in 1971. The morning after Thanksgiving that year, as we were eating donuts and listening to music, an unmarked car pulled up in our driveway. Two men in dress blues stepped out. All Air Force wives know what that means, and the men had only spoken a few words before my mother collapsed on the front porch. They carried her crying to the couch. We were told that our father’s chopper had crashed in the river and that he was missing in action. Mom sobbed; I felt shocked and numb.
I took my two little sisters, ages six and nine, downstairs to the basement and kept them there. We stayed quiet and listened, forgotten in the confusion. For two days we made sandwiches and stood apart, watching. Dad’s body was recovered two days later. Mom cried some more. People brought us food for a few days, there was a funeral, and then we were left alone. Mom stopped crying and walked around the house with a distant stare. A dark silence occupied our house for a long time.
Soon after his death I remember running into Mom in a dark hallway and her sharp intake of breath as she said, “You look just like your Dad.” I stood there, guilty, in the middle of the floor. I couldn’t help being a reminder of sorrow. Did I remind everyone of Death, my face an omen of the grief Death brings? What else
could explain the averted eyes, the painful silences from both friends and strangers when the news was told?

I didn’t understand what war was. Mom sheltered us from television images of the war. Besides, those men wearing camouflage running around on the ground were not my dad. My dad was a pilot; he wore a plain flight suit when he went to work. He was doing something Top Secret and the return address on his letters was fake. As far as I knew, Dad was at work on a very long mission. When he was killed, I did not know why I felt so ashamed.

As I grew older, I came to hate the Vietnam War and blamed the government, even though I had no idea about the war’s causes and avoided any mention of it. I became a rebellious teenager, transforming hurt into toughness. I grew bitter in my ignorance.

Hating the war helped when I had to tell someone my father had died fighting there. I couldn’t say he had been drafted unwillingly; he was a career soldier who volunteered to serve two tours in Vietnam. Joining in the belief that it was a bad war made it easier to get along with others who hated it, which was most everyone I met. I did not know then that my father had been a hero.

I found out about that from The Trunk. On Thanksgiving Day 1996, the 25th anniversary of his death, Mom deposited a heavy blue trunk in my living room. She firmly announced that these were my father’s things and were now mine to keep. She was finished with them. I wasn’t so sure I wanted the trunk, so I put it away in the closet. Many months later I opened it. There sat his Air Force hat, the silk band stained with sweat. The musty dress blues, a mysterious black beret, scattered medals, stack of letters tied with yarn, a folded triangle flag. I remembered the casket flag, men with quick white gloves folding the neat bundle, placing it with finality on Mom’s lap. Years of silence, all bound up into this one trunk, now airing in my spare room.

I had seen the medals as a child, set out on the bookcase in the basement. He had earned most of them during his first tour in 1969. Now I saw what they were: A Silver Star, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, an Airman’s Medal for Valor (he was most proud of this one), eight Air Medals and a Purple Heart. Fourteen medals. Most of the citations were missing; I had no idea what he had done to earn them. The Silver Star is the second highest medal an Air Force pilot can earn, but all I remembered was Dad's joke that he had gotten it by flying a general to use a real latrine. In my little girl mind, I had believed for many years that this story was the truth.

Since opening the trunk, I have researched his mission and read over 100 letters he had written. I have made contact with several men from his squadron. I found out that Dad was a highly skilled Air Force chopper pilot for the 20th Special Operations Squadron (the Green Hornets) who was flying “sensitive and classified missions” on the real, secret front lines of the war. The 20th SOS’s mission was to rescue long-range reconnaissance patrols on the ground in Cambodia during a time when both the United States and North Vietnam were denying any involvement there. Dad repeatedly flew extremely hazardous missions head-on into gunfire with frequent disregard for his own life. One time he and his men ran to a crashed and burning chopper and lifted it up enough to free a man who had been pinned underneath. Reading the letter he wrote to my mother that same evening took my breath away. Why had no one ever talked about his bravery? Why had I been ashamed of him?
I thought the answer to those questions lay in the horrible attitudes that Americans had toward military personnel during and after Vietnam. People treated us as if we were at fault. Military families who showed patriotism were spit upon; one of my mother's widowed friends who flew a flag on her house found a bag of dog feces on her front porch with a note saying "Babykiller." My own father had not been allowed to walk through the civilian airport terminal to greet us upon his return from Vietnam because people might be upset to see him in the flight suit he was still wearing, fresh from the battlefield. After he died, my sister's teacher blamed her misbehavior on our "broken family." No wonder our mother taught us to not tell anyone and to pretend that we were a fine, normal happy family.

After September 11, 2001, I knew I had to make sense of that hidden yet dominating event in my life, because there would be a new generation of young ones left behind. I determined they would not be left alone in shame and silence as we were. I began to research, scouring the internet for information. Slowly information came trickling in. I found an organization called Sons and Daughters in Touch (SDIT), a group of individuals who had lost their dads to Vietnam. I received emails from men who flew with my father. The man who had pulled my father's body out of the water sent me a detailed description of that day. It was the first time he had ever told anyone. I went to the reunion of my father’s squadron and met many kind men who have told me stories about my father's bravery. Even the gory details have been soothing to me.

I continued looking. One of my internet searches brought me to the WWII War Orphans' website (AWON) where I found their book, Lost in Victory: Reflections of American War Orphans of World War II. Published in 1998, this collection of oral narratives from adults who had lost their fathers to WWII came as a pleasant surprise. Until then, I had found no published work at all about U.S. war orphans, although plenty has been written about war orphans from many other countries. AWON reports that there were no statistics on U.S. war orphans from WWII, except for an estimate of the number of dependents who received benefits – 183,000. It amazes me that so many people could have shared this traumatic experience, yet none of the individuals interviewed had ever known another person who had lost a father to war. I was stunned. I had assumed that the shame and silence I had experienced had been due to the nation's conflicted ambivalence about the Vietnam War, but in this text I read tale after tale about similar emotional responses coming from a group of individuals who had lost their dads to a popular war. The mother's shame at not being married in post-war boom times, the children's need to fit in with their happier classmates. All this was my experience too!

I determined that I would research the stories of U.S. sons and daughters who had lost a parent to the Vietnam War. Through the university, I gained access to extensive libraries and search engines. But I found only one published memoir, “Daddy’s Gone to War”: The Second World War in the Lives of America’s Children, published in 1993 by William Tuttle. Only through word of mouth from members of SDIT was I able to find the two Vietnam War texts that I explore in this thesis. Karen Zacharias, author of Hero Mama: A Daughter Remembers the Father She Lost in Vietnam – and the Mother Who Held Her Family Together, is a member of SDIT. When I spoke with her, she told me that her memoir, although published in 2005 (while the Iraq War raged on and new war orphans were being made every day) and reviewed on National Public Radio, had sold very few copies. She said there was a very limited market for her book. Through Zacharias, I learned of another memoir, Gail Gilberg’s Snake’s Daughter: The Roads In and Out of War, published in 1997. If I had not met Zacharias, I might never have found these hidden texts.
I did not meet another war orphan until I was 43 years old. My experience – the silence, the shame, the secrets, and the interest in finding out later in life – closely matches the experiences of many others. I cannot express how soothing it has been to meet others like myself and to discover that my experiences were typical. It feels like I've removed a festering thorn.

In this thesis, I reveal the stories war orphans tell themselves about war’s aftermath. I investigate the assumptions and justifications U.S. citizens make about the dependent children of fallen soldiers. I intend to broadcast the voices of U.S. war orphans, so that those who follow will know that they are not alone.


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