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Tales from the Mark Side: The Conservative Voice in Manatee County

Tales from the Mark Side

‘If not me, then who?’ A belated Veterans Day message

 

By Mark Young

mark.young@manateeherald.com

 

“If not me, then who?” is a question very few young men and women ask when making the decision to become a warrior and defend this great nation.

The powerful philosophy behind that question takes on no greater meaning than when chiseled onto a warrior’s headstone. It’s a painful reminder that the lives of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and only the few will ask it and then act on it.

It’s not a new quote and has been used by many as a call to action, but I prefer to tie it back to Mahatma Gandhi’s. “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

For a veteran, the only way to enact that change is to leave all you’ve ever known and loved and to potentially put yourself in harm’s way to protect the very things you’ve left behind.

For some of us, it was just instilled in how we were raised, which is why you often see generations of family following in the footsteps of their firefighter, law enforcement or military family members.

I was raised by a U.S. Army Special Forces officer who served three tours in Southeast Asia. My Green Beret father served in Laos and Cambodia training local tribes to fight the VietCong infiltrating their lands leading up to the Vietnam war itself. Dad went back to serve in the first year of the war in 1965.

Before he went back to war, my mother and father made a conscious decision to have another child just in case he never came back and I am the product of that decision.

I have two older brothers, both who were surprise pregnancies. I remind them to this day that I was the only one planned.

We were raised to love our country even if there wasn’t a lot of love within the family. In the end, we all served and followed Dad’s footsteps into the Army. In turn, all of our sons, save one, did the same.

Dad did come back from the war, however, and went on to serve until his retirement in 1979. He died in November of 2000, so this month is the 21st anniversary of his passing. Even as I write that, I can’t believe it’s been that long already.

I typically sum up my childhood by telling people Dad died in the war, it just took 20 years to kill him. He essentially drank himself to death.

As a young boy, I mostly loved and feared my father. I won’t bore you with the details but I had a recurring nightly nightmare from about 5 to 6 years old of Dad hunting down and killing our family.

Dad started every morning as soon as he woke up with Vodka and orange juice. Breakfast of champions, I suppose, but he’d switch to bourbon on the rocks around noon and drink until he passed out later that night.

His life, and subsequently ours, were put on a daily loop of the same thing for the rest of the time we lived together as a family.

It wouldn’t be until I joined the military myself that I would come to understand who my father was. As a boy, I remember him standing in front of the television watching the 1975 chaotic fall of Saigon.

My mother was at his side and neither were saying a word, so at 10 years old I asked what was happening. Dad just turned around and said something to the effect that the war was ending.

I had just cut off a .45 record version of “Monster Mash” off the back of the cereal box. Do you remember when you used to be able to do that? I thought at the time, and even at 10, what a modern marvel it was that you could get a new record off a cereal box.

Anyway, I responded with something along the lines of, “Let’s celebrate and listen to my new record.”

It was one of the few times Dad was patient with me. He knew I didn’t understand what he was suffering watching the chaos of the Saigon evacuation unfold after sacrificing so much of himself in defending South Vietnam’s freedom against communist aggression and expansion.

Of course, I came to know what that had to do to him inside, and even more so how it must have hurt to have the country turn on him during the war as anti-war protestors began their disgusting personal campaigns against veterans.

Even after my own service, I wanted to know more about who my father was. I read everything I could get my hands on about Vietnam’s long warring history with the Japanese, Chinese, France and then America.

I learned what led to American involvement and the incredible heroism our Vietnam warriors displayed while embroiled in a war our own government wouldn’t let them win.

Can you even imagine sacrificing so much only to see your own government treat your sacrifice like it was nothing? I know our Afghan vets today can relate, but thank God the one lesson of Vietnam was learned and we don’t blame our veterans for the mistakes of our own failed leadership.

I saw my father in a different light at the end of it all. I’m not going to pretend it solved all of our problems. We still had a rough relationship and at the end, we were estranged for his final three years on earth.

He went into Hospice without me ever knowing and died refusing to see me over an argument we had three years prior.

Dad didn’t make it easy to love him, but I respected him despite all of his other failings. 

I didn’t respect some of his choices, but all of those other things paled in comparison to the fact that he decided to ask himself as a young man, “If not me, then who?”

The societal consequences of Dad asking himself that question during Vietnam’s tumultuous and divisive time at home is what ultimately impacted who my father became more so than the war itself.

My family are fighters and inflicting violence upon those who intend harm to our loved ones at home is not a problem for us. Being betrayed by our government and, in my father’s case, a betrayal by the very people he served to protect is another matter altogether. That is what changed and impacted my father, not the war.

That is what killed him.

I joined the Army just seven years after the Vietnam war officially ended, and already by then America had come to realize the horrible mistake they had made in the way they treated Vietnam veterans, for the most part.

I was blessed to have served during a time where I was taught and trained the skillsets of war by Vietnam veterans still serving at the time.

You have never flown a combat mission until you have had a Vietnam veteran helicopter pilot at the controls. Lord have mercy, those guys can fly.

Anyway, the day my father died, he paid me a visit. I know that may be an unexpected twist to this story, but bear with me.

I was a sports writer at the time and worked a lot of nights and weekends so I was sleeping in the morning when the phone rang. I woke up and for a second, I saw my father at the bedroom door smiling at me. I knew what it meant.

Dad smiling at me rarely happened in life, by the way. I shrugged it off and went to answer the phone. My mother was on the other end to let me know Dad had died.

I responded with, “I know. I just saw him.”

I went back to bed and a little later I was awakened with a “Mark,” being softly said in my ear.

It was just one word, but it was my father’s voice. In that one word, I felt an overwhelming peace within his voice and I knew he was OK. I knew that he had found the peace that escaped him for much of his life.

I also knew the personal importance of why he chose me to make his one and only afterlife visit. We had had a rough go that didn’t end well. Just in that short vision of seeing him at the door and hearing his voice told me everything I needed to know.

I was happy for him that he found the peace in death he could not find in life.

It was that experience where my lifelong journey to find the meaning of life and my love for Christ truly kicked into high gear. So yes, I probably grieve much differently than others. In short, I’m happy for those who are, not moving on, but returning home.

There is always a lot said on Veterans Day and I’m grateful for all of it, and for so many different personal reasons. I didn’t want this message to be lost among all of those other great messages, so I hope you will forgive the brief venture away from politics to share this personal message with you.

“If not me, then who?”

For all those who asked themselves that question when charting their destinies on this earth, whether military veterans, firefighters or law enforcement officers who choose to be the few that run toward danger, I thank you for your service.

You define the greatness of America. You are the spirit of everything this great country represents. You are the chosen ones and may God bless and protect your journeys.

Author

By Mark Young

Mark Young is a U.S. Army veteran and a seasoned journalist of 25 years. His writing and reporting has garnered dozens of state press association and press club awards in Florida, Nebraska and Wyoming for investigative reporting, opinion writing, in-depth reporting and more.