War has many faces. My father and I encountered a solitary soldier walking along the side of the road many years ago. I don’t know his name or what became of him, but I will never forget him.
I was around ten or so; call it 1971. The war in Vietnam was raging but I didn’t know a lot about it. I watched the news with Mom and Dad and felt sorry for the soldiers who were killed or wounded. I was insulated from the horror of war in the safety of my small Missouri home by youth and distance, and by loving parents who sought to limit my exposure to it.
In the early afternoon of a hot summer day, my dad and I were driving down Main Street on our way to Flat River to pick up our order at the auto supply shop. Pop had been working on putting an engine in a lady's car. He’d run into a lot of problems with this one, and for one of the few times I can remember, my dad was in a foul mood. He didn’t have a lot to say, and was in a hurry to pick up our order and get back to work.
As we drove, I could see someone walking in the distance. The heat rising off the blacktop shimmered in the sunlight, giving the man an almost ghostly appearance. Minutes later, we passed a soldier walking along the shoulder of the road. He looked tired as he wrestled his duffel bag into a more comfortable position on his shoulder and trudged on. Dad didn’t say a word; he simply pulled over and waited for him to reach our truck. I felt sorry for the man; his face and uniform were streaked with sweat and he looked worn out. I remember thinking how young he looked. Maybe eighteen or nineteen, and that surprised me. I thought soldiers were older than that.
"Where you headed, son?" my father asked.
"Potosi, sir. I’m headed home," the young man wearily replied.
"Hop in, we’ll take you home."
The soldier's face lit up in a bright and happy smile. Thanking my father, he tossed his bags in the bed of the truck and climbed into the cab.
I scooted over close to my dad and listened as they talked. I was surprised to learn this baby-faced soldier sitting next to me had been in Vietnam. He was too young! He was far too young, he was just a kid himself. They spoke softly, and every now and then I caught the soldier looking out the window at the pastures and hills rolling by like he couldn’t believe he was there.
They talked about the war. The soldier said it had been rough and he’d lost several friends. He told dad they’d received some pretty mean treatment from a few folks on their way home. I didn’t understand that. Why would you be mean and hurtful to someone willing to fight for you? That didn’t make any sense at all to me. Glancing at my father, I saw he didn’t understand it either, but he sure didn’t like it.
We were nearing Potosi and that boy was getting more and more excited. Dad asked where he needed to go in town.
“You’ve brought me a good way, sir. You can drop me off at the city limits. I’ll find my way from there.”
“No, sir. You tell me where, and me and the boy, we’ll take you to your door.”
He smiled and thanked Dad again, and after a short drive we found his street. We were just a few blocks from his parents' home when I heard a funny sound from the soldier. As I looked at him I saw his chin quiver as he bit down hard on his lip. I don’t know why, but it touched my ten-year-old heart and brought tears to my eyes. I scooted over and hugged him, and told him I was glad he’d made it home safe. He sobbed as he put his arm around me and hugged me back.
I’ll never forget pulling up in front of his parents' home. He tousled my hair and tried to thank my father.
“I don’t have the words, sir.” he said, tearfully gripping my fathers hand.
“Welcome home, son, and thank you.”
As he turned away we heard a yell from inside the house. The soldier sat his bags on the curb and laughed happily as the door burst open and a little boy ran onto the porch jumping up and down, yelling “Momma! Momma!”
We saw the soldier's mother and dad run down the sidewalk to their son. I cried happy tears as he lifted his mother in his arms and swung her round and round, clutched tightly to his chest. We saw him bear hug his dad and kneel down to lift the leaping little boy high over his head.
Hearing the gravel under the tires as my father pulled away, the soldier turned and waved goodbye. I was so happy for him and his family. I was too young to understand war, but I knew he’d been in an awful place.
As we drove down the highway toward home, I looked over at my father. His dark mood had lifted and there was a slight smile on his face.
“That sure was good of you, pop. Taking that soldier home like that.” Laughing, I said “Hey Pop, you went fifty miles out of your way to get him home!”
My father looked at me, and after a moment, softly replied, “Yeah son, I guess we did, but he went sixteen-thousand miles out of his way for us. Promise me son, you’ll never forget it.”
“I swear, Pop. I’ll remember.”
That was over thirty-five years ago. I still remember the simple joy of helping a young man reach his home upon his return from war. I pray for him still, as I pray for all our brave men and women defending us today. I don’t know if we’re wrong or right in what we’re doing, but I know each of those serving our nation has a family waiting and worrying at home. They are the faces of war, and I hope we never take them for granted again.
To all the veterans of Vietnam who came home only to be called foul names, spat upon, and ignored — there were many like my dad and I, who honored your service and were glad you made it back.
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