JUNE 1969. Just days before Dad left for a second combat tour in Vietnam, Mama bought him a black leather Bible. Last year, I found it packed away in a box labeled "memories." Still crisp, only a single passage had been marked. As my finger traced familiar words, it all came rushing back; his deep voice from the reel-to-reel, the sound of her carefree pre-war laughter and then years of heart-pounding, life-shaping silence. Are these the verses that prepared them? Or am I reaching, still searching for something to explain?
Psalm 71. In thee O Lord, I put my trust. Let me never to be put to confusion. Deliver me in your righteousness and cause me to escape.
He spent another full year there, leading a company of 110 young "Golden Dragons" through tangled places hard to pronounce. Binh Duong. Dau Tieng. They were 2/14th Infantry, 25th Division, and their mission that year was to gather intelligence and use it to destroy an often unseen enemy. Wounded twice, Dad earned a trip, for rest and relaxation. He met mom and me in Hawaii, where we snapped our last family photos in a cramped picture booth. They were smiling, with me wiggling in his arms.
Incline your ear to me and save me. Deliver me, O my God, out of the hand of the wicked ... For you are my hope, O Lord God, I put my trust in you.
June 6, 1970. Ten days before Dad was due home, he was a passenger in an OH-6 helicopter, doing a pass-down flight of the area with the man who was to replace him. The small helicopter was shot down, suddenly, in the middle of the Michelin Rubber Plantation, which was French-owned, and widely known to house Viet Cong. Dad's men, back at the base camp, received word from a helicopter overhead; a lone man was being pursued by more than 40 VC. Another account, from a local child, said an officer had been captured following the crash.
My father was missing for six days. His replacement had been found dead with the chopper. The young pilot had escaped. Only Dad was unaccounted for. His men refused to stop looking for him. Well-armed, they combed the area, despite the risks. They loved my father. They called him "the good captain." Was he being tortured? Did the VC have him?
My enemies speak against me. They that lay wait for my soul take counsel together saying: God has forsaken him; persecute and take him…
On the other side of the globe, Mama's mind was racing. From her little house in Barnesville, in southern Georgia, she got the call that he was missing. She sat, at once, penned him a letter and sent it on through the mail. "I pray to the Lord you have not been captured. I know He will return you to me, my beloved. We have a daughter to raise." Months later, long after we buried him, the letter made its way back, unopened. It remained that way, in his Army footlocker for 40 years, until my own hands, trembling, peeled back the yellowed crumbling envelope.
Let them be confounded and consumed that are adversaries to my soul; let them be covered with reproach and dishonor that seek my hurt. But I will hope continually, and will yet praise you ever more.
On that final day, when the men of Echo company found him, Dad was well-hidden in the underbrush just 300 yards from the crash site. Limbs shattered. His pale body was broken, but intact. He had not been captured, but he had died from wounds sustained in the crash. Worn from the search of him, they wrapped him in weathered ponchos. They carried him out of those rubber trees and, eventually, they returned him home. We buried him on Father's Day at Fort Benning, under the pecan trees. And I was 2 years old.
I hurt, even now, that Dad died like that, but I'm certain, as a believer, he was not alone. I imagine sometimes an angel there with him, with camouflaged wings, outstretched to hide him, while the VC ran right by.
You, who have shown me great troubles, shall quicken me again, and shall bring me up again from the depths of the earth.
Memorial Day is the day when people like me go back to the day that changed them. We cling to little Gold Stars, to worn Bibles with marked passages and to the promise of heaven.
A few months ago, in the old cemetery, I stood under those same pecan trees with little children of my own. I held their sweet hands and I introduced them to their grandfather, Capt. William A. Branch. "It's okay that you didn't know him, honey. I didn't know him either. But one day we will."
And as the sounds of my girl years grow quiet, the ache for answers is replaced by the wisdom that I don't need them. I'm filled, instead, with a deep gratitude for the God who loves us, for the family he has provided for us and for the future, uncertain, but filled with hope.
Jennifer Denard is a graduate of USF St. Pete. She is a Gold Star daughter, a pilot's wife and a mother of three. She teaches in Naples, and sometimes she writes, in this case, exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times. More stories can be found at www.goldstarchildren.org.