Several years ago I found a box of letters in my parents’ bedroom. I confess that curiosity got the best of me while I was looking for the sewing kit. I saw a box that I had not noticed before. It was dusty with no markings, but it gently whispered, “open me!” Would my parents have shared this box with me had I not found it on my own? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe they wanted to keep it between them and I can understand that now, but what a treasure I found! I found over a year’s worth of correspondence between my mom and dad while my dad was serving our country in Vietnam. Nothing had opened my eyes and my heart about my parents as did this discovery. Fear and love were scribed on every page. I even read the letter that accompanied an engagement ring sent from Vietnam to Michigan. Yes. That’s right. An engagement ring! Theirs is a love story for the ages. I wish that I could scan all of the letters and allow you to read this beautiful love story, but I will respect those intimate words and keep them in my heart and in that box for now. Just trust me when I say that they are lotion-kleenex-worthy. From Dad’s descriptive letters of meals (mostly talking about Spam in a can), to the engagement, to stories of close calls, loss and pains of war - my view of Bob and Linda Burl changed forever.
Below is a photo from 1970 of my Mom (then Dad’s girlfriend) and Dad at the airport. He was heading to Vietnam. I simply cannot imagine what this moment must have felt like for them. Pride and fear must have rivaled one another in their hearts. My dad was sent to Vietnam along with other high school buddies. My dad would be one of the few who returned.
Looking back on my childhood, I remember going to various Memorial Day and 4th of July parades, knowing that my dad would jump in with a random group of Vietnam War Veterans to finish the march. I remember listening to patriotic songs for hours with my dad and I would try my best to learn them and sing them for him. I remember the flashbacks of war that he suffered when I was a small child. I remember visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. and standing next to my Father who sobbed as he rubbed the charcoal over the names of his buddies who never returned to American soil. Even now there is a solemness that overcomes him when he hears a helicopter. His time at war changed him forever. In some way it has shaped part of who I am.
On Memorial Day in 2008, Josh, Mom, Dad and I visited Freedom Hill in Clinton Township to see the moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. Dad had brought several photos and newspaper clippings/obituaries of friends who died and added them to a photo album kept by the Vietnam Veterans of America Chaper 154. I ordered a brick in his name to be added to the special memorial erected to honor those who served, those who fought and those who died in the Vietnam War.
On Veterans Day of the same year, he received a very nice packet of cards and notes from a group of elementary school students. They were being taught the significance of our veterans and the need to recognize them. My Dad was deeply touched by their words.
I want to close out my thoughts by sharing a snippet of a note that Dad wrote to me on May 24, 2009:
"38 years ago today, 24 May 71, three of my friends I served with were shot down at Fire Base 5. Two were KIA (CTP Dewey and SP4 Lubbehusen). SP4 John Littleton was rescued, but was wounded. On the next day, 25 May 71, another ship flew in under heavy fire to med-a-vac John and I was supposed to be on this rescue mission. Due to other circumstances I remained at base. The rescue ship was shot down again as they were leaving. John and all aboard were KIA. They were listed as MIAs, but their remains were recovered 2 months later. The rescue pilots KIA received the CMA (Congressional Medal of Honor).
I left Nam 16 June 71 and was home for good.
My heart still hurts."
I sobbed for quite some time after reading this and it still breaks my heart. My dad remembers it all. The names. The dates. The numbers. Every detail. This is why we must remember and honor our veterans for their willingness to change their lives and give their lives for our country.
So today I honor my Dad.
Thank you, Dad. I love you.
Mom and Dad at the airport 1970. Saying their goodbyes as Dad was leaving for Vietnam.
Dad's Christmas Dinner Menu from Vietnam 1970.
Mom with flowers that Dad sent to her from Hawaii. The engagement ring from Vietnam accompanied a letter that arrived at the same time.
Back home from Vietnam, June 20, 1971. A changed man.
I just noticed that my Dad is holding my mom's bright red, New King James Bible. I'll have to ask about that!
(Note: she did ask....he returned from the war, and they went right to church from the airport)