In the spring of 1998, my senior year in college, I received an unexpected yet excellent guest outside my front door of our rented house on the corner of Radcliffe Street and Rutledge Ave in Charleston, SC. It was my uncle, my dad’s next oldest brother. My dad was the youngest of four siblings- oldest brother, another older brother, older sister and then him. If I recall, it was late in the afternoon during the week and I was the only one home- all my other housemates were up on campus at College of Charleston. Hearing the doorbell ring I got up never in a million years figuring my uncle would be on the other side of the door. He was in town for work and asked my dad for my address. We ended up going out for some beers at a watering hole in town and catching up. It was really great.
What made our surprise get together special was that I wasn’t particularly close to my uncle. At all. In fact growing up our family did not see his wing of the family all that much. It was nothing bad. There was no falling out. No family issues say over a disputed inheritance between my uncle and my dad. We just did not connect a whole lot as families when I was younger outside of maybe a family reunion or say passing through Northern Virginia where they lived and still do. So spending time with my uncle if only for a little bit was really neat because looking back it was at that get together that I can say my relationship with my uncle really truly begun.
My uncle graduated from the Naval Academy in 1964 and embarked on a thirty year career in the Navy as an officer and commander flying planes. After retiring he did a good deal of consultant work with the Defense Department working in the Pentagon as a civilian employee. In short, his professional life was that of a public servant- a very good public servant. My father always looked up to his older brother. Although it is certainly not unusual for a younger brother to look up to his other brother I can recall when I was a kid my dad always speaking glowingly about what his brother did or was doing. It was really cool to see and I can remember thinking to myself -“Oh, wow, younger brothers continue to look up to older brothers even when they are both older.” To his dying day I still believe that one of my dad’s favorite days of his life was attending his older brother’s naval retirement ceremony at Annapolis. My uncle retired at the rank of captain. Man was my dad impressed!
Despite not seeing a lot of each other my dad and his brother were pretty close. They spoke on the phone pretty consistently- getting and giving family updates of how everyone was doing, talking politics and history and of course solving all the world’s problems. When my father was diagnosed with dementia my uncle and my aunt (his wife) were really good about assisting my mom in anything she needed. He also made sure to email me more frequently as well, a quick check in every little bit to make sure I was okay and if I needed anything. And I will be eternally grateful for that.
But really all of this wasn’t much of a surprise, my uncle his whole life was always good at looking after his younger brother. . .more than I ever knew until recently.
After graduating from Annapolis my uncle was sent to Vietnam. He flew RA-5C Vigilantes off aircraft carriers and his job was to take pre and post reconnaissance photos of bombing targets over North Vietnam. Although the Vigilante was very fast it was also unarmed which made for very dangerous work. The Vigilante also had the dubious distinction of having the highest percentage of any military aircraft to be shot down over the skies of North Vietnam. All flight missions are challenging but pre-bombing reconnaissance runs at least included the element of surprise whereas post-bombing reconnaissance runs necessary to make sure selected targets had been neutralized were especially perilous because there would be no element of surprise. North Vietnamese anti-aircraft and surface- to-air missile operators knew that bombing runs were soon followed up by these reconnaissance runs piloted by men like my uncle and they would be waiting. Imagine flying over North Vietnam in and around Hanoi armed only with a high resolution camera? Scary. And yet that’s what my uncle did as well as so many others each and every day in Vietnam. Brave young men did scary dangerous stuff all the time with many not returning home.
On one particular combat mission in August 1966 launched off the USS Constellation my uncle went above and beyond the normal call of bravery obtaining valuable reconnaissance photos of a target outside of Hanoi, the capital city of North Vietnam. He achieved these photographs by successfully avoiding seven surface-to-air missiles and in doing so was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The best part, besides him returning of course is that if you ever met him you never would figure it. Like so many men of his ilk he was always very modest and humble in his demeanor.
Around the same time, a bit less than a year later my dad graduated from the University of Notre Dame in the spring of 1967. He then entered Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, GA in 1968. By this point no one was really safe from being drafted and that was exactly the fate of my dad. He was drafted out of law school, went to basic and then to Officer Candidate School down in Fort Benning, GA. Eventually achieving the rank of 1st Lieutenant my dad like so many others was essentially being fast-tracked to Vietnam. He was going to be working in the field directly with ARVN or the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. As dangerous a gig as one could find over there. It was pretty much automatic that any junior officers like my dad coming out of Ft. Benning in 1968-69 were headed to Vietnam.
But my dad never went. Instead, he went to South Korea. A hot spot indeed especially during the Cold War however it was not Vietnam. I recall a story my dad told regarding all this in which my dad’s immediate superior officer looked at his serial code on his orders stupefied and said “I don’t know where you are going but you sure as hell aren’t going to Vietnam.” He then followed that up with “You might be the first person in a long time to come out of Fort Benning and not go to Vietnam.”
This past February my uncle passed away after a long battle with cancer. After the wake all of the cousins went out for drinks and it was over an evening of conversations where my siblings and I found out that my uncle had done everything in his power to keep my dad, his kid brother from going to Vietnam. At around the time my dad was at Fort Benning my uncle was working as an admiral’s aide. It was during this time that he formally expressed his thoughts on his brother going to Vietnam to his superiors. “If I’m here my brother shouldn’t be here. . .I don’t want him here if at all possible” was more or less the gist of his request.
During Vietnam, the Defense Department certainly had siblings serving in Vietnam at the same time however from my understanding they were not to be in the same unit or in the same theatre of operations. This informal regulation or guideline (became formalized in 1991 during Bush 41 presidency) came about as a result of the tragedy of the five Sullivan brothers all killed together serving aboard a navy ship during World War II. And the military’s sole survivor policy would not apply either. The question then becomes was Vietnam one massive operational theatre? The fact that siblings served at the same time over there spread throughout the country is an indication that it was not and instead had various operational theatres. Moreover too, on a personal note, every conversation that I ever had with my dad regarding this time in his life he never figured he would be sent anywhere else but Vietnam.
A brother looking out for his brother. When I found out about all of this during post-wake drinks I got up, went to the bathroom and had a good cry for a few minutes in one of the bathroom stalls. I was blown away at the information. My dad had no business going anywhere else but Vietnam and yet he didn’t go. Why? A defined, clear government policy at the time keeping him from Vietnam? Not that I’m aware of. Luck or good fortune? Perhaps, but I’m not convinced he would have gone to South Korea if it wasn’t for the action taken by my uncle. Might also be part of the reason myself and siblings are here today.
Knowing someone or finding out someone is always trying to look out for you or a loved one even when they are not physically present is really heart-warming and powerful. It’s the definition of love. My uncle had a lot of it and I will always cherish that about him and try to emulate as much in my own life. A true lesson in love.