By Debra Silva Rivera
My father went to Vietnam when I was 8 years old. It was a rough time for my mother and four siblings. My parents struggled to stay together.
I might as well have been the young girl in the newspaper photo clinging to the soldier. Cameras caught the moment of a family running toward the man in the uniform, duffle bag hoisted over his shoulder. The dutiful wife hugging him tightly and a young girl like me, holding onto his leg and then being scooped into his arms.
I was young enough to be in that scene, but when my father returned no one met him at the plane. My parents had separated right before he got deployed. I said goodbye to him twice. First, when he moved out of the house and then when he left to fight a war.
When the evening news would flash pictures of the soldiers in Vietnam, my eyes darted back and forth across the black and white screen, looking for the man the adults in the family stopped talking about. Sometimes there were TV specials and comedians, singers and beautiful women who looked like dancing Barbies entertaining the troops. I’d watch the shows with my family. We talked up a storm about the entertainment and laughed at the jokes, but no one said anything about our father. I silently searched for him in the sea of soldiers dressed in green. Sometimes I’d wished he was injured because the cameras seemed to pan closer to the wounded soldiers watching the show in their hospital beds.
I remember getting mail from my father. The envelopes were stamped Air Mail and framed in red, white, and blue. Stamps covered most of the top right corner. My father would write that he was doing fine and he missed everything about us and the United States. He sent me a map of Vietnam which I hung by my bed until he returned. Then I ripped it to shreds. That war was over.
Military life consumed my father and while my time with him was limited after he returned, I cherished every minute of it. He currently lives near Fort Sumter. When I visit we go to the PX and drink coffee.
When I look at photos of my father in his military uniform, I can’t help but think back to the time he was in Vietnam. I was too young to understand war and the politics of it all. At that time, words meant less than the photos which filled the national newspapers. Photos of Army men on tanks rolling into Vietnamese villages, children running with barely any clothes on. Women carrying too much, and the absence of the men. Helicopter blades spinning and trees swaying violently away.
I remember buying a POW bracelet and reading the daily list of POWs and who had been released. I’d cut out articles on the war and read them over and over as I lay in bed at night.
I’m not ready to watch the new Vietnam documentary by Ken Burns. I think back to the little girl I was and re-live my Vietnam War. I’m not sure why it will be so hard to view. Maybe because my heart will tumble in the loss of it all. A small country falling apart, young men and women being killed, bombs and anti-war demonstrations.
For me, the war was about a young girl waiting for her father to walk out of that storm and carry her home.