He carries moments and memories of long ago that feel just like yesterday. How do I know? Because certain images or words will trigger him and immediately, he will say something in a voice so soft, I hardly recognize it. I’ll look at him intently, trying to listen better and glimpse tears glistening in his eyes. Bits and pieces of time spent in the Air Force come flooding back.
Long ago, whenever we asked about his time in the service, he always said he just ‘pushed papers at a desk’. But that doesn’t make you have nightmares. That doesn’t make you blink back tears. That doesn’t make you say, “I’ll never tell what happened…you’ll never know”. Over the past 4-5 years a few stories have been shared, mostly at unexpected times. Easy stories, that only hint at what he did. He will never share the hard ones. I’d like to know, though. I feel a piece of his pain when I see him struggling with memories.
A few years ago, we took him to the WW2 Museum in New Orleans. He saw a full-sized C-47 airplane hanging from the ceiling and he immediately began telling us everything about the plane, down to the details of the inside and where everyone sat. The gunner, the navigator, the flight mechanic….. I began reading aloud an information board that detailed a navigator’s job. Dad said,” I did that.” I replied, “I didn’t know!” And he said, “There are a lot of things you don’t know.” And then he told a story of being asked by ‘Top Brass’ one morning if he thought he could navigate as they were short a navigator. And Dad replied, “I’m sure I can!” …finished his breakfast and found himself in an airplane, like the one we were looking at in the museum, navigating. And it wasn’t the only time he flew as navigator. There were other rooms depicting wartime scenes in the museum that Dad would not stay in. The memories were too much.
I got him several books to read a few years back. Lone Survivor was one. The others were biographies written by pilots about the Atomic Bombs tested around Eniwetok and the end of the Korean War. Watching him read, I would see him quietly wipe tears rolling down his cheek.
We were watching a TV show where a helicopter crashed. Dad said, “I was in a helicopter that went down in the ocean by the islands. We were scouting from the air for large 3-foot clams that we would later dive down and bring up for ‘top brass’ who were visiting and liked to collect, so we were over fairly shallow water. The helicopter didn’t fare so well, but everyone got out safely.”
There are many things that go on around the world in the military that we, as citizens, never know about. Some are just day-to-day events, and others life changing.
When he joined the Air Force, Dad wanted to be a pilot, but he was denied because he was color blind. Back then, that was enough to disqualify you. My dad served during the Korean conflict, stationed on Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands. He is an Atomic Veteran. His military records, as well as others that served with him, mysteriously burned at the supposedly secure government vault in St Louis, MO.
At 100% disabled, his body reflects what was required of him. The doctors say he’s a walking miracle. His body basically held up by sheer will. The physical toll on his body – cancer, degenerative bone disease, and auto-immune issues are linked to radiation exposure by working and being involved in Atomic Bomb detonations and dealing with the aftermath. He just recently went to the VA for help because he was told never to say a word about his duties. Ever. Even to his doctors. With his top security clearance, he took an oath to never talk about it, or it would be considered an act of treason with consequences that would affect not only him but his family. It took us a while to convince him that after 50 years, he could break his silence and at least get help from the VA. Because his military records were burned and the VA had no record of his service, the only way he received help was because he had saved his DD214 document.
I’m confident he served in the military as he lives- as a son, brother, husband, father, and grandfather ….. he gave it his very best; all out -never giving up. Strong, resilient, faithful to God, family, and his country. That’s one reason he is still here at the age of 88, almost 89 next month. And the American flag still flies proudly in his front yard.
I am thankful and grateful for the service of our military that provides us all the freedoms we have today and secures it for future generations. Thank you to all Veterans. Thank you for the physical and mental pain you endure every day. Pain that you traded to protect your family, friends, and country. You are my heroes!
A special thank you to my favorite veteran, my dad.
Ralph Watts Roll, Atomic Veteran, Korean War Veteran
God bless America