Many (lucky) daughters see their dad as heroes. I’m no exception.
He’s a modest guy, my dad. The polar opposite of ostentatious. A regular Joe – fitting because that’s his name. He wouldn’t like the idea of me calling him a hero, much less writing about it. Good thing he doesn’t read this column.
He served in the military – as did each of his five brothers. He was the youngest of the boys in his family and a Marine. Some of his older brothers fought in World War II. He came along just in time for Korea, where he served two tours of duty before injury pulled him back home.
Sometime during his first tour his mother fell ill and died. He was flown home for the funeral, but then headed back to serve his country. That’s the kind of man he is. Loyal and dutiful.
After the war, he met and married my mom. They were together for 49 years 10 months. Her Alzheimer’s cheated them out of the big 5 – 0. At the end he served as her caregiver, which is the epitome of loyalty and love.
Much like Korea, Alzheimer’s required him to be a warrior. He fought hard, alongside my mom, against a formidable and deadly opponent. It was a gruesome existence. Alzheimer’s is hell.
She’s been gone nine years and he still signs her name – along with his – to all family birthday cards: “Love, Gram and Gramps.” I know he misses her more than I could ever fathom.
I was always aware he was awarded a Purple Heart medal for injuries sustained in Korea. The medal sat in a drawer in the nightstand next to his bed so I understood it must be important. When I was a young girl he let me take it out and look at it on occasion. But he never talked about it – the medal or Korea.
As he’s gotten older, he’s more willing to open up about those days. About what he experienced. About what he saw. About what he had to do. When he’s in the right mood he’ll share stories and even answer questions.
He was especially touched by the Korean children – innocents caught up in a war they could do nothing to avoid.
In recent years he’s talked about fighting in battles where the casualties were high. He witnessed soldiers fighting alongside him die during combat. There wasn’t time for mourning or taking all the bodies back to camp. If a soldier ran out of ammunition and a deceased comrade’s gun was well equipped, someone with the ability took the gun and continued fighting.
“You took what you needed,” my dad said. And then he sighed and whispered, “War is hell.”
It is difficult for me to fathom, but it must have been a gruesome existence. And it lingers still today. As of February 2019, 7,667 American soldiers lost in Korea are still unaccounted for.
Family folklore is an interesting thing. My sister and I never knew the story behind the Purple Heart, but somehow we came to believe our dad had been caught in the crossfire during battle and was hit by shrapnel in his leg.
I don’t remember anyone ever telling me this. It was a fact I somehow mysteriously knew. Family folklore. My dad didn’t talk about those times, and we followed suit because we understood it was a taboo subject so we continued to believe our own folklore.
Recently, however, he set the record straight.
“I wasn’t shot in the leg.”
My jaw must have dropped.
“It was in the head. It grazed me right here,” he said pointing to his temple. “Half an inch difference and I would’ve been dead.”
And I never would have been born.
Between Korea and Alzheimer’s, my dad’s been through at least two wars in his lifetime. That’s two more than anyone should have to endure. Through it all he’s been steadfast, loyal and humble. Just a regular Joe. A hero. In my humble opinion we could use more like him.
Jill Pertler is an award-winning syndicated columnist, published playwright, author and member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Don’t miss a slice; follow the Slices of Life page on Facebook.