Father’s Day is tough for me, and for a lot of military families. Too many dads (yes, and moms as well) are still deployed overseas. Much worse, too many dads have been lost in our nation’s wars, and not all of them to enemy fire.
My dad died 15 years ago June 16 — which falls on Father’s day this year — on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon, shortly past 4 o’clock. I was holding his hand. He’d been taken off the ventilator that morning, and we sat vigil around his bed in the ICU, waiting, knowing there was nothing we could do to keep him with us any longer.
He was only 67. His first grandson was just 5 months old, and we didn’t know it yet, but my brother’s son would be born the following January.
My daughter, who adored her “PaPa,” was distraught when we told her he had gone to Heaven. Her grandpa had learned early how to install her car seat in his pickup truck so he could take her around town while running errands. She’d visited the local bank – and come home with a fistful of candy, the first she’d ever had. She’d petted “Popcorn Kitty,” the mascot at the lumber yard north of town. She’d even gone fishing, though she didn’t like the fish or the smell or the bugs or the mud, but she loved her grandpa.
It was multiple myeloma, cancer of the plasma cells, that stole him from us. It’s the same cancer that killed Sam Walton and Ann Landers.
My dad died less than six weeks after diagnosis, although he’d had it for months, if not years. At least two doctors completely misdiagnosed his symptoms. He must have suffered incredible pain — multiple myeloma is reputed to be one of the more painful cancers — but he was a Marine.
Once and always a Marine, although his active service was just three years, from 1951 to 1954. It amazed me, sometimes, to think of that, as he did talk a lot about his time in the Marine Corps. “The Marines’ Hymn” was the only song he could play on the piano, with one hand, and he taught it to my brother and me.
He had fought in Korea. It was the coldest place on earth, he told us. It was also the hottest. You ate the best C-rations in the morning because you didn’t know if you’d be around that night. He hated the TV show M*A*S*H* at first. That’s not what it was like, he told us, until he saw later episodes that conveyed a deeper message.
After Korea, he served as a drill instructor and artillery instructor at Camp Pendleton in southern California. It was during that time he was an observer of an atomic bomb test in the Nevada desert. He was there, I believe, in the spring of 1953, for something called Operation Upshot-Knothole.
He was just one of thousands of Department of Defense personnel who participated in the atmospheric nuclear tests that ran from 1945 until 1962. In fact, servicemen and women from all branches of the military participated in these exercises and are known as “atomic veterans.” Some may be eligible for compensation if they’ve suffered health problems such as certain types of cancers. (We haven’t applied for my dad.)
Did my dad volunteer or was he ordered to go? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. But he was exposed to ionizing radiation, and research studies show that it increased his chances of developing multiple myeloma.
Not every soldier dies at the hands of the enemy. Dysentery and other infections wiped out Civil War soldiers. Poison gas continued to cause problems among World War I vets long after the fighting ended. Agent Orange caused cancer in Vietnam vets. Gulf War veterans have suffered a mysterious array of symptoms known as Gulf War Syndrome.
Now we’re losing soldiers in Afghanistan to suicide. Last year, more soldiers killed themselves than were killed by the enemy. An intriguing study offers the explanation that multiple head injuries (even if mild) may be to blame.
I don’t care how a soldier dies. Anyone who chooses to serve his or her country deserves our respect and gratitude.
My dad was a war hero, as far I’m concerned. But again, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. He was my hero. And I miss him every single day.