Oh, the stories they can tell: Take time to listen to veterans in your life

My dad doesn’t yawn. Ever.

Because 48 years ago, in the jungles of Vietnam, he was taught that yawning on guard duty was a sign of weakness. Today, at 70 years old, he still doesn’t yawn.

He doesn’t camp either. There were no tents or sitting around the campfire for my sister and me growing up. But it’s hard to complain: after Dad made it out of the bush alive, in 1970, he promised himself he would never sleep on the ground again. And he hasn’t.

He also vowed he would never talk about his time in Vietnam. But gradually, that young man’s pledge began to crack along the edges until it caved in completely about two years ago, when my father asked me to help write his memoir.

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It wasn’t always easy to hear his stories, and it was even harder to write about them. Much of what he says isn’t flattering. In fact, he still claims his wartime experiences make him feel like a criminal, not a proud American veteran.

As a drafted soldier, my dad was faced with serving in the Army or going to jail. At one point, he considered fleeing to Canada. But ultimately he enlisted. And thinking he could bide his time — falsely believing the war would soon be over — he even went to officer training.

My dad became what was known as a “Shake ‘N Bake” officer — a quick-trained, inexperienced leader. Shake ‘N Bakes had a bad reputation for getting themselves and sometimes their men killed.

When dad arrived in Vietnam, he had never been out of the United States before, he didn’t want to be a soldier and his guys were leery of leaders like him. They called him Sgt. Garbage, a throwback to his college basketball nickname, “the garbage man.”

That is just a little of what I learned about my father from his war stories. He talked about fear and regret and brotherhood. About helping one soldier get his GED and watching another step on a booby trap.

Today on Veterans Day, I urge you to take the time to listen to the veterans in your life — if and when they are ready to talk. Just listen. We can learn so much from their experiences, and also come to appreciate them and their sacrifices even more.

I am so glad my dad finally told me his stories. And I will someday pass them onto my sons.

He tells me that when he finally visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., a few years ago, he found the name of one of the guys in his squad, the “Garbage Squad.”

As he looked at Brian’s name, beautifully etched in stone, and so many, many others who served beside him, my father decided that keeping quiet was no longer an option. He would share the stories his buddies could never share.

For the rest of us, it is our duty to be there for our veterans, and to listen.

Brooke Miller Hall, of Columbus, is coauthor of “My Confessions from Vietnam” with her father Mark S. Miller.