Stepping into March 20: Today and 50 Years Ago

We took some significant steps today, my daughter and I. We visited the university that she has dreamed of attending since she was five years old, and it’s no longer just a dream. She’s been admitted as a student for the class of 2022. All she has to do is accept the offer and officially register.

It’s a big step. A step that will change her life, and I’m thrilled at the world of opportunities opening up for her as she leaves childhood behind and begins her transition to adulthood. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to some sadness, too. It’s a bittersweet time.

Her dad and I made the same journey at her age. My parents worked and saved for my whole childhood to provide a college education for my brother and me, and it’s what I’m most grateful for. It’s a chance my mom never took, and one that came late for my dad.

It was not lost on me today, as my daughter and I walked across the urban campus with dozens of other wide-eyed high school seniors, that on this very same day 50 years ago, my dad also took a step. A step that would change his life.

Instead of a college campus, however, he was walking his 19-year-old feet across a beach looking for the North Vietnamese army. Among the picturesque white sand dunes, speckled with palm trees, his platoon found a stash of backpacks and supplies.

“Third platoon, send a squad to check that stash!” yelled his captain.

Dad took four of his men with him. He knew the risks and they took each step with great care.

It wasn’t enough.

Hidden in the sand, beneath the stash, was a landmine, and Dad took the unlucky step that triggered it. He heard the click and said he felt time pause long enough to know what was about to happen.

“I thought I was dead,” he wrote decades later in an article for the Portland Oregonian newspaper, where I learned — for the first time, along with thousands of other readers — exactly what happened to him on March 20, 1968.

Dad lost his legs in an explosion that catapulted him into the air and then sent him careening back toward the sand. He landed head first.

His buddies pulled him out and loaded him into a Medivac chopper.

“Weeks later, I wished I had died,” he said after both of his legs were amputated. “The pain was fierce and unrelenting.”

At the same time the man who would become my Dad was serving in Hell, and recovering from his injuries, the college campus we walked across today, was likely filled with students protesting our nation’s involvement in Vietnam. Many of the protesters blamed the boys fighting the war as much as the government who sent them. Dad felt their vitriol when he came home.

He was just an innocent farm boy who had the misfortune of not being able to afford college. He served his country the same way as his uncles did in World War II. In fact, he was sworn into the Army on the 25th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He felt it was his duty.

Years later, he knew his country had betrayed him.

Dad finally did get his chance to go to college. It was his dream and he fought for it. He rolled across campus instead of walked, and supported two young children and a wife while doing so. Dad was a hero in more ways than one.

Today, I straddled the decades. I remembered Dad and the quiet pride I knew he must have felt when he graduated from college. I remembered the way he beamed at me on the day I graduated from college a mere 15 years later, and I thought of how thrilled he’d be today about his granddaughter continuing the tradition he began. Dad was the first person in his family to graduate from college.

It’s a legacy to be proud of.

“I was a gentle draftee with dreams and plans for life,” he wrote. “Sometimes I wonder what I might have become if it weren’t for the war.”

Thank God, and God willing, none of the students I met today will have to wonder the same.

Go, seize your future kids. And thank a Vet — or in my daughter’s case, Grandpa — for the opportunity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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