Thirty years to closure

  • Published
  • By Col. Todd G. McCready
  • 7th Mission Support Group commander
A parent's wartime deployment can be traumatic for children. I experienced this first-hand as a child when my dad went to Vietnam. It took me 30 years and a second significant emotional event for me to come to closure.

My dad was a career Army noncommissioned officer. In 1968, a peak year for the Vietnam War, we moved to Fort Bragg, N.C. -- the home of the legendary Green Berets.

A ballad by Army Staff Sgt. Gary Sadler, popular at the time, played frequently on AM radio. He sung of a Green Beret who died proudly "for those oppressed."

I had just turned nine when my dad took my brothers and me to see John Wayne in "The Green Berets." The movie depicted firefights in which American soldiers were killed in heroic combat with "Charlie."

Nearly every night we watched network news with Dan Rather reporting from the combat zones of Vietnam. My mom bought Life Magazine.

One week there was a special edition in which they published a photo of every American killed in Vietnam the previous week. There were about 300 pictures of men who, in their official photos and Class A uniforms, looked much like my father.

Not long after, my father received orders for Vietnam. This rocked me to the core. From everything I had seen about the war, I was certain dad was going to die there.

The morning dad left for Vietnam, I broke down. Waves of sadness and tears flowed. I sobbed for days.

At nine years old, I couldn't understand why I felt so intensely sad. My brothers made fun of me, and I was ashamed and felt guilty for my feelings. I learned to keep my feelings inside, but my sadness and overwhelming feeling of loss and guilt remained.

One year later, my father returned safely.

He was an awesome father; I respected and admired him. Over the next decade and a half, dad guided me through confusing teen years and was proud when I enlisted in the Air Force.

I was 26 in the spring of 1986 when my dad unexpectedly passed away. This was the first time someone close to me died. I loved dad dearly, but strangely, I didn't feel the sadness I thought I would. If anything, I was sadder for my mom. She was crushed by the loss of her husband.

Thirteen years later, I was 39 and my marriage of 11 years ended; I was devastated. The pain I felt was the same I experienced when I was nine when my dad left for Vietnam.

Counseling helped me learn I was struggling through the grieving process for my marriage. I also came to understand I had grieved for my father when I was nine and this was why I couldn't grieve for him again when he passed. I was finally able to let go of the guilt and shame I had carried for 30 years for having those feelings. This was an incredible moment of closure for me.

If only my parents had recognized what I was going through at nine years old. Perhaps they could have gotten me counseling to help me better cope with dad's deployment, help my brothers understand what I was going through and help me avoid three decades of carrying that emotional burden. I'm not even sure such counseling was available in 1968.

We are fortunate today to have a robust support system for the families of our deployers, and none of our Air Force children have to go it alone dealing with their feelings.