Updated: May 26, 2020
I originally wrote this piece on Memorial Day 2016, and I've shared it every year since.
My dad died when I was 36, yet I never really knew much about him or his early life. Not because I didn’t want to or because he didn't want me to. He just didn’t share much about himself. And when it came to his military service, I, along with the rest of my family, was completely in the dark.
Through the years, I got out of him that he served in the South Pacific during the waning months of World War II, and I always thought he was part of a group that, for lack of a better term, “turned off the lights” as we left the war behind us.
But over the years, after watching him on all those Memorial Days, marching in parades with his AMVETS unit, standing at attention, saluting the Flag as it was raised, seeing a tear run down his face from behind his dark sunglasses as someone delivered a speech about those lost in combat, I came to realize that his military experiences amounted to much more than just cleaning up the remnants of a war. I believe he was in it … fully in it, and the so-called "remnants" of that war never left him.
To this day, I know nothing about what my dad endured overseas in and around 1945. I don’t know if he killed anyone, or if he saw any of his buddies wounded or killed. I don’t know the pain he endured during or after his time in battle, the fear, the panic or the trauma. And I would never know, right up until the day he died in late 2000.
Unfortunately, I never asked him about it. It seemed like that’s the way he wanted it. Compartmentalized. Left behind, or at least left alone by people who weren’t there, those who didn’t understand; couldn’t understand.
I never asked him what happened or if he was OK, though I don’t think he was ever truly “OK.” And the most unfortunate thing, I think, is that I never told him how proud I was of him for his service to me, family and my country, and even more importantly, for his ongoing strength and pride in his own country and for all those who served before, during and after his tour of duty, especially those who gave their lives, those people my dad continued to honor every Memorial Day until the year he died.
My father served, not voluntarily but willingly when called, and I believe – I truly believe -- he suffered for the rest of his life for it. Yet he was able to build a life and a livelihood, to endure and succeed despite the demons that plagued him and so many others. Today, we call it PTSD, but if he were here today, I’m guessing Don Haznaw wouldn't accept that term. Instead, he'd brush it off, not because he didn’t suffer from it, but because he didn’t want to be diagnosed with it or defined by it.
He just wanted to be himself, to live and let live in peace. He wanted to go about his business, to deal with things “his” way. (At his funeral, we played Frank Sinatra’s My Way for that very reason; that and he always kind of reminded me of Sinatra, right down to the blue eyes.)
On the outside, he had a tough, rebellious shell, and he was a pro at pushing down his past and any pain he felt. But for those close to him (as close as he would let us), we saw the frayed edges, and we noticed the times when memories – long burned into his mind and his heart – quietly but profoundly bubbled to the surface.
And it was days like Memorial Day when he’d get quiet and serious. As soon as he would put on his dress uniform, his posture would stiffen, and he’d enter a world of his own; one only someone like him, someone who had seen battle -- a veteran -- could understand. It was days like Memorial Day when I’d see one of those rare tears trickle down his cheek as Taps was played in remembrance of all those who died in battle for us. And, it was then I’d realize that yes, he likely did see and experience things that no one should ever have to see or experience.
For those of us who haven't served, we can never know what those who have gone to battle experienced. Fact is, even had Dad told me the entire story of his military experience in great detail and with all the passion he could muster, I still wouldn’t really know what happened or how he lived with all those memories.
There’s no way I could.
Likewise, for families whose loved ones returned from those battles, we can’t know what it’s like to lose a spouse, a child, a close friend or comrade.
Memorial Day is a day to recognize and remember those who died for us. While my father didn’t die in battle, I know that if he were with us today, he would be quietly, stoically honoring those who did. And while I can’t – nor do I deserve to – put on a uniform today or claim in any measure to know what it's like to be my dad or any of his brothers in arms, I can and will quietly carry on his legacy of respect, gratitude and mourning for those who lost their lives to protect mine.
It’s the least I can do for those brave soldiers and their families. And it’s the least I can do for my dad.
© 2016 David R. Haznaw