In 1968, my dad’s oldest brother was killed while serving in Vietnam. The following year, his son, Jimmy, was born. By the time I came around, my cousin Jimmy was already a teenager. But ever since I was old enough to understand his situation, I have wondered how Jimmy felt about never having met his father. I wondered how he managed the idea that his father had died in war.
In honor of the Month of the Military Child, Jim, now 46 years old, has graciously agreed to share his experiences and emotions. My hope is that Jim’s answers will help us gain insight into what children in this situation go through and how we can better help them cope so that they may move forward and find peace.
What is the earliest memory you have of being told about your father?
I was about 6. My Mom showed me photos of my father. In one photo he was smiling and standing next to a Volkswagen Bug. After looking at the photos, I went into my room and cried for a long time.
Do you recall any emotions you felt throughout your childhood about not being able to know your father?
I mostly felt a mix of sadness and anger. I wondered what he would think about my choices and if I was doing the right things in life, especially when I became a teenager. I’d visit his grave to ask if I were doing the right things. I still wonder what he would say.
Your mother remarried and had five more children. Did you ever feel like an outsider among them because you had a different dad?
I never felt like an outsider. My step-dad is my “Dad” who raised me. My brother and sisters always felt like full brothers and sisters. I think it was an intentional decision my parents made to ensure we were all treated equally.
Did you ever feel different at school and among other kids?
Only a couple times. Some teachers would point out my different last name and want me to talk about why. I was shy in school, and never felt comfortable talking about it. Truthfully, I did not really understand why my name was different.
When I was really young, I was not aware enough to know what I was missing. But as a teen I became curious about what he was like. Only recently did I decide to find out more about my father, his life, and the war he died in. Perhaps if I knew these things when I was younger the desire might not be so strong now.
Did your relationship with your father’s family help you feel more connected with him?
Immensely. I wish now that I had spent more time with my grandpa and uncles. I didn’t realize at the time, but they were excellent role models. They showed me how to be supportive, discipline with care, and have fun.
Is there anything you think would have helped you better understand and accept your situation throughout your childhood?
My parents provided a secure, supportive family life in my childhood, and that was important. Later, more factual information about the circumstances of my father’s death would have helped. Talking with men who served with my father would have been ideal, but not many who served liked to talk about it then.
In retrospect, I wish I had investigated the battle he was KIA as a teenager. I think facing the unknowns and the pain earlier may have prevented falling into avoidance habits. In a sense, I’m just now accepting my situation fully.
What advice do you have for anyone helping children who have lost a parent to war, or to military related accidents?
Make available age-appropriate information when the child is ready. It helped me when young to think of my father as a hero. Also, it is important to remember life goes on. Honor those deceased, and show love and appreciation for people here now. Provide a stable, loving environment with normal amounts of discipline. Encourage the child to stay in touch with the parent’s family if possible.
Do you have any additional comments that you feel could help today’s military children better deal with the loss of a parent, or never having met a parent?
Many others have experienced great loss as well. Try to seek out others who lost a parent, especially in war. I recently visited Vietnam and met others who lost family members in the war. Sharing pain and loss reminds us we do not have to suffer alone. Healing takes effort and is often painful, but is important to live an emotionally healthy life.