By Arlissa Daniels Simon
One of the many down sides of an overseas deployment during the Vietnam era was that families had to move out of government housing while their military parent was gone. We had been living in housing at Ft. Sam Houston for about 6 months when my Dad’s orders for Vietnam came through. We had a family meeting to discuss where we might want to live while we waited for him to come home. I had just started 5th grade in my 8th elementary school. The last thing any of us kids wanted to do was move again! Our choices were stay in San Antonio and look for a house to buy or rent as near the Post as possible, or move to Arkansas to be near the grandparents.
My family decided to stay in Texas, as it was easier to move off post than to pack up everything and move to Arkansas for the year Dad would be gone, only to move again upon his return. Still, it meant yet another school and making new friends again.
My father was stationed in Saigon, the Master Sgt. in charge of the 3 hotels/barracks that visiting dignitaries, politicians, officers stayed in while in Vietnam. He was responsible for lots of formal dinners, escorting people around, and making sure things went safely and smoothly. We were living in San Antonio, waiting for him to finish his tour and anxious to find out where we would be living next.
One evening in March of 1968 we were watching tv and President Johnson came on to deliver his famous,”I will not be seeking reelection ” speech. As we sat there watching, my 10 year old brother, Dwight, got very excited. He ran for paper and pencil and wrote Lyndon Johnson a letter. In it he told the president how lucky he was to be coming back home to Texas, and that maybe his daddy would get to come back to Texas too. Then he thanked him for being a good president and for serving our country. The next morning my mom helped him address the envelope and mailed the letter.
About three weeks later the phone rang early one morning as we were getting ready for school. When my mom answered, the voice on the other end identified himself as from the Department of Defense, calling for the President, and asked to speak to Dwight. He told my brother that the president enjoyed his letter and wanted him to know that he had made sure our Daddy would be stationed in Texas when it was time to come home!
About half way through my Dad’s 18 month tour in Vietnam, I was babysitting for friends and the evening news came on. A new feature on the nightly news was embedded reporters sending war stories back as they happened. While watching a “live” report from the jungle I saw a young GI get shot and killed. It was the 19 year old neighbor boy from 3 doors down. The whole neighborhood saw it happen, including his mother and sister. The next day, when the post chaplain and post sgt major came to inform the family of his death, the military wives were already there to help and support their neighbor. After that, all of the military kids in our neighborhood were banned from watching the news on TV until our Dads came home.
Nearly all my friends who had a Dad in Vietnam tell a similar story of reoccurring nightmares while their father was gone; I used to have two such dreams. In one I was in a deep foxhole with my little sister. Guns were pointed down at us and I had to try and keep her safe. The other dream was about being lost. I was walking home from school and my street was gone. I walked and walked, asking people if they knew where Hialeah Avenue was. They kept giving me directions, but when I followed them, it would lead me to a different Hialeah Avenue. A huge barrack style building would be there, not my house. Both of these dreams stopped when my Daddy came home safely.
Those news clips that show a soldier surprising their children, coming home on leave for thirty days always make me cry. Mostly because I remember so well how completely and utterly awful it was when the leave was over and Daddy had to go back to Vietnam and the war. That was probably one of the worst days ever… I would have been better off emotionally if my dad had not come home for a visit. Having him leave the second time was way worse. I guess because I was a little more aware of the dangers and hardship involved, but mostly because it felt like a big tease. I just wanted him to stay.
While my dad was in Vietnam we got a letter almost everyday. They were usually addressed to my mom, but the rest of us got lots of letters too. There was no internet, skype or FaceTime. Long distance phone charges were so expensive that calls were not even considered. My sister and I baked cookies and made fudge every month to pack and send to my Dad, my Uncle Jim and my cousin, all stationed in Vietnam.
I remember how excited we were at Christmastime in 1968. We got a reel to reel audio tape from my Dad! We did not have a tape player, so we had to wait until the next week, when my mom was off from work to go to the Post recreation Center to listen to it. It was so good to hear his voice.