Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tears of our Fathers

One of the images I remember best from growing up was a picture my mom had in a frame on a bookshelf. It was a cut out from the local newspaper published in the waning months of 1973 and featured two men. The years have faded from my memory its exact details, but this is what I remember of it.

The first man is a handsome, yet somewhat tired looking figure, perhaps in his early to mid forties. He is dressed in the blues of an Air Force officer, with a crutch below his left shoulder, and in the background a throng of people stand cheering. Yet while he was the center of attention for the gathered crowd on the tarmac of the Minneapolis Airport where the scene took place, it is the second, and older, man that catches your eye.

For in his face are the lines of deep joy mixed with long-suffering tears finally welling to the surface. He wears a brown plaid hat tapered near the front with a distinguished crease down the middle and nearly imperceptible ear flaps on the sides. The pattern of his long coat matches that of his hat. Beneath the lenses of his glasses are the tears, and the faint smile of relieved emotion just below them.

The two men are embracing, and an observer is struck by the feeling that he can actually hear the prayer of thanksgiving being extended heavenward as the older man grasps the younger.

A Father sees his son for the first time in over five years. The Son had been off at War, imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton for the entirety of the period. The plane that brought him home sits near the crowd in the background. The Father kept the faith while he prayed for years on end for his son’s safe return.

The younger man is the husband of my great Aunt, the older his father. My mother is in the middle and high school band amidst the crowd in the background.

These family anecdotes, even if punctuated by a front page photo, don’t mean particularly much to a young boy growing up with baseball, Legos and airplanes to consume his energies and time. Perhaps the intrigue of the Air Force officer being a fighter pilot catches his imagination, but the impact of the homecoming scene that was so monumental evaded his understanding, at least in those formative years.

But even in the absence of understanding, the stories of those years between 1968 and 1973 were told over and over. My Great Uncle left to fight, and in his absence after being shot down and captured, his wife and children moved back to Minnesota to live with his wife’s mother. It was a stately home in Edina, adjacent to the still nascent Highway 100 and bordered by the Minnehaha Creek in the Country Club District.

My Mom and her brothers tell of those early years with amusement, and a tinge of sorrow. They had found new playmates in Frank, Peter, Liz and Bill, but the reason for their arrival was unwelcome at best. They were all children then, and managed to get into trouble, fight, make up, play make-believe. The seriousness of the adult world that plunged them into those circumstances was very real, but I don’t imagine they fully understood it. All they knew was that their Father or Uncle was painfully absent.

Meanwhile, as the children did as children do, the pilot’s wife, as all military wives throughout the centuries have done, waited and worried. She was surrounded by her brother and his wife. She had her mother and father to assist her with the children. She knew the plight of her husband, but was helpless to support him as she had vowed on their wedding day. She did all she could to keep her youthful and energetic family sustained amidst the absence of their father. She was lucky to get one letter a year from her husband. But She kept the faith on the home front.

Soon, a national organization of POW wives was formed, and She began communicating with and befriending the wife of then Captain James Stockdale, the senior American imprisoned in Hanoi. They fought their own government, and made the personal absence of their beloved husbands a national issue. Hearings were held, and even as America erupted into chaos on its college campuses and returning service members were spit upon and harassed, a subtle roar of support for the imprisoned pervaded its way through the national consciousness.

Half a world away, the hundreds of Americans captured by their enemies tried to build a society in the midst of unimaginable depravity and desolation. Their country was bound by concrete walls and iron barred windows. Their cuisine was moldy soup and rotten bread. Their culture created from the philosophers of old. Their character, tested and strained, remained resolutely American.

They devised ingeniously simple methods of communication to maintain human contact with their fellow isolated prisoners. Entire conversations were conducted by merely tapping on a wall – and in some cases the best of them could transmit upwards of fifty words per minute. Their deepest secrets and greatest hopes were passed sometimes between men who had never, nor ever would, meet each other face to face. They refused repatriation except for those cases allowed under the Code of Conduct, and endured terrifying tortures. All of them at one point or another broke, but their brothers were there to build them up slowly, empathizing with them as they too had broken. Some of them died, others went missing. All were physically broken, many mentally and psychologically so.

As only military men can do, they managed to recreate the rigid hierarchy and chain-of-command that they had known their entire lives. They assigned collateral duties to keep the men occupied. The leaders among the prisoners issued orders for conduct and defiance of their captors. The most effective of them were separated from their subordinates and placed in solitary confinement for their innovations. When faced with the prospect of being a propaganda tool for the enemy, their leader cut and deformed his face to such a degree that their captors finally understood their resolve.

At one point, a prisoner managed to sew an American flag out of bits of torn fabric. His brethren said the pledge of allegiance over and over. Upon hearing this, the guards came in, took the artisan and his flag, and nearly beat the former to death. Upon his return to the cell, bloodied and bruised, barely able to walk, the first thing he did was begin to sew another flag.

For a time, sickness ran rampant through the prison. As the prisoners were given only water to wash their cold metal plates with, sanitation was minimal at best. Yet, they devised a means to thwart illness spread through uneaten food. They simply licked their plates clean after each meal, rinsing them afterwards. Amazingly, the transmission of illness through insufficiently washed utensils ceased.

One of their most junior members, derided and then ignored by their captors, was ordered to accept release. He, despite his captor’s perception of him as having no intellectual acumen, had memorized the name and rank of every American in prison –over 750 in all. His return to the United States was the first many families had heard of their missing loved ones – and the extent to which Americans were being held prisoner in unimaginable conditions.

Yet throughout years of such treatment, in some cases surpassing seven and eight, the men kept the faith. And then one day, their unconditional release came. They, representing every branch of the Armed Forces, were headed home.

Even in their release, they gave no quarter to their enemy. Hoping to gain the good will of the world through the image of jubilant prisoners being released, their captors had cameras ready to record their elation. However, the now free Americans remained stoically silent and stone-faced until their freedom bird had lifted from the ground. Once safely airborne, they cheered and cried. They really were, finally, free.

Captain Jeremiah Denton, one of the senior commanders, and prisoner for over eight years, penned the following on the flight home:

"We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our Commander in Chief and to our nation for this day. God bless America."

Soon after, similar scenes of homecoming as experienced by my family were repeated around the country. The war may not have been won, but the men who fought it and their families who lived it remained faithful to the end.

Lost in the lexicon of civilian life are the tales of bravery and heroism that pervade every corner of military tradition. It is the men that precede us we pay homage to, and to whom we strive to match in standards of integrity and character.
We are an imperfect profession, populated with imperfect people, defending an imperfect nation. But intertwined with this very imperfection are the complimentary traits that lead inexorably to the innovation and spirit of liberty that has perpetuated our nation’s greatness.

It is the very tears shed at the homecoming of our heroes that make valid their sacrifices for our freedoms. Sacrifice is not sacrifice unless borne by the best of what we have to offer. To this, and them, we owe a debt of profound gratitude.