My dad carried the pain of war, alone

MGN Online / CNN

Editor's note: James Kindall is a writer on Long Island, in New York.

Monday, November 11, 2013 - 9:50am

Every war veteran has stories. They can be shocking, harrowing, tragic -- sometimes even funny. The problem for families trying to understand those experiences, on Veterans Day and every day, is that they won't hear much about them. Many vets have trouble talking about them.

This was the case with my father, who saw lots of action as an artilleryman in the Philippines during World War II. When I was a kid, I'd beg him for tales about the war. Usually, he waved me away. Sometimes, though, he gave in to my badgering.

I found it strange that most of his accounts were short on the blood and guts bravado that my G.I. Joe comic books had led me to expect. Mostly, they were about men who simply wanted to do their job and go home, but found themselves subject to the deadly coin toss of war.

Like today's soldiers recovering from injuries, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or haunted by images of fallen friends, he soon learned after returning home that he couldn't explain war to a civilian. He would carry this alone.

"There's no way anyone who wasn't there could understand," he would say.

He shook his head telling about the time he had been relieved of duty at a forward observation post. Moments after he walked away, an enemy shell hit the site. It obliterated everyone there, including the friend who had just taken his place.

He was lucky in war. I think that bothered him, too.

His unit saw 187 days of active battle, but his only injury came when his leg was peppered with shrapnel during an assault. Gangrene set in. Doctors told him the leg had to come off or he could die. He refused to let the doctors operate, and they reluctantly respected his wishes. Then a new "wonder drug" arrived. It was the first batch of penicillin to reach the Philippines, and his life was saved.

Why was he spared and others not? Again, he couldn't explain.

One day, he heard that an acquaintance -- a kid from his hometown in Missouri -- had been killed in a nearby conflict. He drove to the battlefield to search for the body, but most of the dead were too disfigured to be recognized. Finally, he gave up. He couldn't understand why he had wanted to find him. Or, what he would have done if he had.

"Really, I didn't even know him," he told me.

At some point during those evenings, he would stop and turn his head. I knew he was finished then, and I would wander off, leaving him to his distant world.

Years later, as a reporter, I wrote a series of articles about WWII veterans. Each had his own accounts of exploits and escapes. Like Dad, they usually had to be coaxed into talking. Often, the interviews astounded members of their own family who were hearing the stories for the first time.

Like many veterans today, the war never left my father. For years, he suffered bouts of malaria from his time in the South Pacific. His wounded leg sometimes gave him trouble. He regretted not signing up for disability pay while getting his discharge. But the line of injured vets was too long for him to wait. He wanted to get home to a bride he hadn't seen in 3½ years. And a 4-year-old son he'd never met.

My father respected the sentiment behind Veterans Day, but it wasn't an observance he enjoyed.

Dad became a successful businessman in a small Midwestern town after the war and, each year, the Veterans Day parade filed past his storefront. He never joined it, or added his voice to the cheering crowd. While everyone else saw the ranks of veterans parading past, he saw the wartime buddies who weren't there.

So, he simply watched grim-faced until it was over. Then he went back inside and tried to forget all over again.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of James Kindall.

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