My family has a long history of serving in the Military. My paternal grandfather fought in WWII and several of my uncles, aunts, and cousins served in every subsequent conflict.
While at church on Veterans Day, our pastor asked everyone who served in the military to stand up. About 20-30 people stood and we gave them a round of applause. I looked around the church and wondered about their stories. What motivated them to go into the military? Had they seen combat? As these questions were swirling around in my head, I started thinking about my Uncle Ellis. He is one of three Vietnam veterans in my family and I knew I had to do something to honor him.
Uncle Ellis loves to drink coffee so I decided to bring him some. I bought a high-end brand of coffee because he’s very thrifty and would never buy something so indulgent for himself.
I arrived at his house and rang the doorbell. He opened the door surprised to see me.
“Hey, what are you doing here?”
“I brought you some coffee and muffins to honor your military service,” I said.
“Wow, thanks,” he said. “Come in.”
I went straight to the kitchen and brewed a pot of the Starbucks coffee, poured him a cup and gave him one of the cinnamon muffins. He sipped the coffee, nibbled on the muffin and smiled.
“That’s good really coffee,” he said. “It’s really smooth. I’m going to have to save this for special occasions so I can savor it.”
“It is a special occasion,” I said. “Drink up.”
After a few minutes of small talk, I mustered the courage to ask him the question I’ve been wanting to ask for decades.
“Will you tell me about your experience in Vietnam?”
He stared at his coffee cup for a couple of minutes and without looking up, he said, “It was terrible. It was the worst experience of my life.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“You didn’t upset me,” he said. “It’s been over 40 years since I left Vietnam and I still have dreams about it. Sometimes I wake up at night and can’t go back to sleep.”
Uncle Ellis was drafted into the Army (1st Calvary 9th Division) in the mid-60s and was stationed in Germany. In late 1967, he received a letter from his mother informing him that his younger brother had been shot in Vietnam. He volunteered to go to Vietnam to replace his brother (his brother later returned for a second tour).
“On my first night of patrol, I was so scared,” he said. “I’d start shooting whenever I heard a sound.” He told me that many of his fellow soldiers coped with their fear by using drugs and it was quite common to see a man cry himself to sleep. Uncle Ellis was determined to stay strong so he could return home to see his family again. But there were times when he didn’t think he’d make it out alive.
“My first combat experience was probably the worst,” he said. “The VC attacked our base at night and we had to jump out of the bed and fight. After the conflict ended, I went back to my bunk and saw that the head of my bed was blown away. I could have easily died that night.”
He told me a few more war stories that were exciting and terrifying. The more he talked, the more I understood why tried to forget.
“The only things that got me through those difficult times were my mother’s letters and prayers,” he said. “I don’t know if I could have made it without her encouragement.”
He went quiet again and stared at the coffee cup.
“Your coffee is getting cold,” I said trying to cause a diversion. “Would you like for me to pour you some more?”
“Yes,” he said. “I would like that.”
I placed the coffee in front of him and leaned against the kitchen counter to create some space between us.
“On my last day in Vietnam, we were attacked by sniper fire,” he said with a chuckle. “I couldn’t believe it. If they had waited just a few hours longer, I would have been on my way back to Germany.”
After surviving that last battle, Uncle Ellis was eager to get home. But things weren’t rosy outside of Vietnam.
“The strangest thing happened when we returned to our base in Germany,” he said. “In Vietnam, everyone got along because we had to in order to survive. But when we exited that plane, some of the guys started using racial slurs. It was like they turned on a switch and became different people. I think that was probably the most painful part of the whole experience.”
He faded off again and I knew it was time to end the conversation.
“I appreciate your sharing your story with me,” I said. “I have to leave now, but I want thank you for your service to our country.”
“You’re welcome,” he said.
“Enjoy the coffee and muffins,” I said as I walked to my car.
“I definitely will,” he said. “And if you want to talk again don’t forget to bring some more coffee.”
Join the conversation: How do you honor your family’s veterans?