This Sunday, Veteran's Day, I'm thinking of all veterans and their families, and of the sacrifices of so many who have given so much -- and who are still giving right now.
I can identify with them, as my husband was called to serve in Vietnam right after the Tet Offensive in the spring of 1968, when my first son Randall was just 3 months old. We went together to Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio for army training and watched on television as Martin Luther King was assassinated. Soon after, I became a newly single mom, as my husband left us in a high rise on Biscayne Bay, not far from where I now live.
Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June, and then in July, Neil Armstong walked on the moon. Historic things both awful and awesome filled that year. As I struggled through, my husband was a first lieutenant, a Medical Administrator with the First Air Cavalry. His main responsibility was dispatching helicopters to aid soldiers in need of medical help, so he was usually near and involved with the worst American losses of that war.
This was a time of military draft. Neither my husband nor I believed America should have been in the Vietnam War, which made the experience and our vulnerability that much more intense.
My husband had been in Reserve Officers Training Corp (ROTC) in college, and could have taken an academic deferment as the war cranked up, as he would be going on to get his Ph.D.. But he stayed in the army after getting his master's degree, hoping that we would be stationed in Europe.
Instead, a recruiter brought him to Ft. McPherson in Atlanta to be his aide rather than send him to Germany. And that made my husband vulnerable to be sent to Vietnam. So for the second year of his duty, he was a part of the proud First Air Cavalry Division.
Wherever the fighting was worst was where the First Air Cav was deployed. This was long before cell phone calls and social media connections, so I depended on newspaper headlines and the "CBS Nightly News with Walter Cronkite." Night after night, the screen would show horrible skirmishes, bombings, killings and mayhem. I would never know if my husband was safe until the next day passed and I had heard nothing.
I lived on edge throughout the year. One day, there was a knock on my door in the middle of the night. I was petrified that there would be two soldiers standing there, but it was just a confused neighbor.
My husband and I communicated for a year by letter, with a couple of rushed short phone calls. So many others were waiting for the phone to speak to their loved ones. Our words were garbled and quick.
We did get together for a rest and recreation week midway through the year, in Hawaii. I brought Rand with us, a smiling baby who didn't know who his dad was, only recognizing his face from looking at the photos I kept on the apartment table.
We tried to have fun, but knowing that he was going back into the worst of the fighting was always on our minds.
The last months of his year in Vietnam --when the tour was "short" -- were the worst. The fear of dying in war days before being sent home increasingly permeates the remaining time.
When my husband returned, gaunt but safe, now a captain with a Bronze Star for special service, we gave a big party and tried to celebrate. But he had changed in small ways, and so had I. No longer the dependent woman I was before this experience, I had learned independence the hard way.
We attempted to renew our lives, and another son was born nine months later. But things had changed, as they do even for lucky military families who do not sustain physical or mental anguish. A dozen years later, we separated.
I rarely talk about that experience. Because of the controversial war, Vietnam vets were never accorded the respect they were due, so we learned to be quiet about it. So many Vietnam vets have suffered throughout their lives, with little support. That remains a shame.
Every Veterans Day, I think of that year and my ex-husband's service, and the service of the brave men and women who have given up so much through our history. They make it possible for the rest of us to have elections like the one we just went through, and to sustain our democratic way of life.
Thank you veterans. Simply, thank you. We owe you so much.