When I think about my father’s military service, I remember his boots.
They hid in the back of his closet when I was a child. Those boots, a pair of worn-out size 8 combat boots, issued by the U.S. Army to a 19-year-old boy, were some of the few remnants about our house from Dad’s stint as an Army Ranger.
An Army Ranger. Typing those words today makes me feel just as proud as when I heard them as a kid. Dad would tell me stories about drill sergeants, of jumping out of airplanes, and how he had been trained to disarm, even kill, someone with his bare hands. But that’s not why I’m proud of my father. I’m proud today because I know the rest of the story.
As kids, my younger brothers and I would dig into my dad’s closet, past the polished wingtips and the leather belts hanging from a nail in the wall, to find those boots while he was at work. We peeled away hangers of blue and white dress shirts, plaid flannels, and windbreakers to find his green canvas U.S. Army duffle bag and jacket. We climbed up the face of his dresser to open the small jewelry box and slide our fingers across his dog tags. We would try them on and imagine.
I bragged to my friends. My Dad is stronger than your dad — because my Dad was an Army Ranger, 101st Airborne Division. Somehow, it made me feel stronger, too. After all, the same blood that sent him jumping out the side of an airplane, that sent both my grandfathers to Army airfields and Naval destroyers, coursed through my veins, too
As I grew up, I began to understand why Dad didn’t brag about his service. He rarely talked about it, unless he was asked. For Dad, those years in service often reminded of his failings.
My grandfather quit school in the sixth grade.
He couldn’t even read until he was an adult. So, when my dad graduated from high school in a poor West Virginia town and went to college, he carried great family hopes on his shoulders. It was a lot for a 17-year-old boy to bear. Nine months later, he failed out of school and retreated home to Sixth Street in Belle, West Virginia.
Not long after, the letter from the Selective Service arrived, and Dad read what was sure to be a death sentence. The Vietnam War raged. Now a college dropout, he was fresh meat. He would go to Fort Jackson for six weeks of basic training. Then, he’d likely be shipped to the jungle, likely never to return. Dad says he considered Canada. Running away from danger, after all, is human nature. Instead, he resisted that natural instinct. He packed his bag and reported for duty.
Providence has a strange way of directing events. Dad had such high marks during basic training that he was given a choice: Go immediately to the infantry in Vietnam, or continue training to become an Army Ranger. He chose the latter. He learned to jump from the air to secure positions in the field. He trained in hand-to-hand combat. This young man, who never once dreamed of military service, was now a trained paratroop commando.
After completing his Ranger training, Dad’s unit prepared to deploy. But instead, President Ford ended American involvement in Vietnam. Saigon had fallen to the enemy, and U.S. forces evacuated. Dad never saw combat.
The last time I checked, Dad’s boots are still in his closet. I’ve only ever seen him wear them a few times. He only wears them when hard, unpleasant work needs to be done. A burst sewer line, a traipse through muddy ground. For Dad, those boots represent lacing up to do the thing he never wanted to do.
The other day, my 2-year-old son slipped my size 11 leather boots on his feet. I bought them from a website because they look good with jeans. I wondered: What things will I leave behind that will show him that I too laced up to do the things I never wanted to do?
Life is so easy now compared to when my father and grandfather were my age. When I failed at schoolwork, I Googled a quick resolution. The Army never called my name to fight a war in a jungle.
As we celebrate Veterans Day this week in America, we tend to focus on the glory. We well up with great pride in the stories of heroism and medals and American ass-kicking. After all, that blood courses through all our veins, too. And so we give away meals and fly flags and turn on green lights. We want to feel what that 6-year-old boy feels when he stands in Daddy’s Army boots.
Those are all good and right things. However, may we add this challenge: Let us also look at our veterans how I now look at my dad. Let us see how many of them chose to do what they dreaded. Let us understand how they fell down and chose to stand back up. Let us give thanks for their willingness to march forward when their weakness told them to run. Let us stand in those boots. And let us leave those boots, worn and faded, for our children to stand in, too.