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Father's war legacy lost forever

by Christine Martin

When my father died in 1996, a soldier's story died with him.

During World War II, he was a courageous first sergeant - respected by troops who believed his leadership saved their lives. He was also a tender man, with empathy so finely honed that the war scoured out a piece of him and changed him forever.

But his story never found a voice, so it never found a home in my heart.

I knew my father better than anyone in my life, but I never knew - and will never know —the details of his days and nights in Okinawa during the last furious battles in the South Pacific. They were days and nights that defined him as a soldier, a husband, a father and an American.

And they will never be a part of his legacy to me.

I learned a little of my father's Army life from his fellow soldiers. After his death, I found testimonies from his men. The letters - maybe 20 of them - were stashed in a battered, green footlocker that he kept in the corner of our basement.

From Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Georgia, the letters told the story of steady leader — unflinching under fire, compassionate and caring, an inspiration to a bunch of young, scared GIs, weary of the war and longing for home.

I never knew the men who thanked my dad for keeping them safe and alive. I never knew the man my father was that early summer in 1945.

And I will never know that defining piece of my father's history, never know his place in the history of this country.

I'm not alone. Thousands of daughters, sons, wives, husbands, sisters and brothers will never know the pivotal and transforming war and service stories of the people they love.

Across the country there are more than 19 million veterans. Some 200,000 live in West Virginia, which has the highest number of veterans per capita in the nation. And every day, 1,500 U.S. veterans die before their histories can be recorded, before their stories can be heard

But thanks to The Veterans History Project - a nationwide effort to document the stories of America’s veterans and service personnel - these precious memories will be preserved in the Library of Congress.

This year, the West Virginia University School of Journalism launched West Virginia’s Veterans History Project, a statewide campaign to encourage and train West Virginians to record and preserve their stories. Since June, students and faculty have recorded over 50 veterans’ stories. Since June, over 50 legacies have been preserved for families, friends and loved ones.

I wish my father’s story had been one of them. I know only a shadow of the truth about his days at war. I discovered that truth a few months before he died, quite by accident, when my father dispelled a family myth, and revealed a brief frame of his war narrative to me.

The family myth was affectionately known as “the bunny story.” It was a story my mom and dad told me countless times throughout my life.

According to the tale, my father, an avid hunter, gave up the sport when he first saw me in my mother’s arms, a tiny infant “helpless and cute, who looked just like a little bunny.”

I loved the bunny story. It explained a lot about my strong, gentle father, and it helped to define his unconditional love.

But in September 1996, when my father was sick with cancer and clinging to the memories of his Army buddies for comfort, he told me something that more fully explained his lifelong tenderness, his inability to cause or even witness pain.

“You know, when I came home from the war, I could never hunt again,” he told me. “After Okinawa, I couldn’t pick up a gun. I couldn’t kill anything. I couldn’t bear it.”

And that was it. He offered a fleeting glimpse of a pivotal moment, then changed the subject, moved on to something else and shut the door forever on those memories of war.

That part of my father, that soldier’s story, died with him untold.

I hope that this Veterans Day, daughters and sons, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters, will ask veterans to share their stories, will ask them to preserve their defining memories and their places in history.

I wish I had asked. I wish I knew what happened in Okinawa in 1945, when my tenderhearted father became a pacifist. I wish that story was preserved in my heart.

It’s a gift he could have given me. In the end, I couldn’t have loved my father any more, but I could have known him better.

Martin is dean of the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism at West Virginia University. For information, visit veteranshistory.wvu.edu for a list of organizations partnering on the project.

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