Patriotism has no Party

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I spent today in New Jersey, beside the hospital bed of my 90 year old father. In the afternoon, a kindly young nurse came in and asked a standard battery of questions, which ended with “would you say you are happy? Do you have bad dreams?” My father softly smiles and says “No, I’m fine.”  Although my father is a scrupulously honest man, he is not telling the truth here: In the past hours he has awoken a number of times, startled to find himself in a room he doesn’t recognize, when a moment before he was in a war, far away, in both geography and time.

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The dreams are rooted in memories, unwanted souvenirs that followed him home from three wars and 33 years on active duty.  It is a near endless macabre library of images awaiting his eyes to close: An old woman pointing out a booby trap in the iron triangle; an F-8F ramp striking the USS Randolph, leaving only a floating tire; Severed heads from highway 1 south of Da Nang; A friendly fire accident by the USS North Carolina; A drunken sailor, drowned himself off Inchon; 23 classmates dying in a single day; A radio call from a Special Forces camp being over run; A friend handing him goodbye letters, explaining his number was up; a Huey floor slippery with blood; Having approved the pass for a man aboard the USS Thresher; His brother, Chief Ryan appearing Christmas week and saying his ship, the USS Vincennes, had gone to the bottom with 322 shipmates; His own father crying hearing the news my father was returning to Korea; A young officer, who survived the same tour, returning home, arrives in the middle of the night at Wake island, decides to dive into the pool to cool off, but it had been emptied. He dies in route to Pearl Harbor; a woman, unaware she is already a widow, awaits in Coronado expecting a happy reunion. It is endless, and these are the ones he can speak of. There are countless others for which words can not be found.

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Father never spoke of these things until he was past 70. Slowly over time his skin thinned, and he slowly became porous, and leaked these images. Today, as an aging survivor, an eye witness to a particularly violent century, he feels obligated to remember the departed, but the memories bring him no more peace than his silence did. We listen, but we were not there, and if you were not there, his words will bring you little closer to the images in his mind. He is surrounded by family, but in coping with these images, he is alone.

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Most Americans of a certain age can recall some of President Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural speech: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” These were not mere words to men of my Father’s profession, it was a cause to pledge your very life to. My Father did not care if the poor of the world chose collective farming or workers wanted social reforms. He just recognized that political systems that don’t value individuals always degenerate to Gestapos, concentration camps, gulags and mass graves. My Father fought to stop the spread of these things. He did not fight for glory, national honor nor American business interests. It was only about human beings.

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When I was little, maybe 9, my Father took us to The Jefferson Memorial. There he explained to us that The United States of America was neither a business nor a playground, it is a set of ideals, which made it the last best hope of mankind. The dream that mankind had moved past kings and dictators, past theocrats and oppressors, to a world where individuals governed themselves as equals. We could look at the ceiling and read Jefferson’s words plainly:

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“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

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 From there we went to Arlington, where my father explained that the nation had set aside an eternal resting place for the citizens who had laid down their lives for the ideals of this country, and if he were ever to take a place among them, we should not weep, as it would only mean that he had lived for something greater than himself.

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The title of this story is simple: Although both parties in this country want to claim ownership of patriotism, their narcissistic candidates and zealot followers don’t own it nor have any right bestow it on anyone.  Like most career officers of his generation, my father never spoke of politics, and had no allegiance to any candidate. In the privacy of our home, he expressed his great admiration of FDR. Dad has been a life long vocal opponent of discrimination in any form, and he felt there was no need for any child in this country to be hungry. My fathers views on a just society would make him a traditional Liberal Democrat, but his views on personal integrity often leave him unable to support nominated candidates.

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When I am enduring a lecture on the evils of FDR from a person born since 1945 who has never gone a even a few days without food, far less years with little hope, I suspect they would soften their zealot views if they had actually lived through the Great Depression as my father did. When I read forwards and stories claiming that no one with liberal social values supports this country, I think perhaps they wouldn’t send that to me if they understood they were slandering my Father; When an occasional tree hugging idiot assumes that he is entitled to address every old man in a veteran cap as a war monger, including my father, it makes me equally livid. Any reasonable person understands that patriotism has no party, and the country we live in, was provided for us by men of many perspectives, but in election years, our country seems woefully short of reasonable people, and overflowing with vocal zealots, all of who would benefit from some personal first hand experience with others they are so quick to condemn.

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This is my issue, my Father is bothered by none of this. He is from a generation of men who’s love of country and family were strong enough to never need the acknowledgement of others, far less praise nor reward. They were motivated solely by belief and love.

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Above, a 17 year old enlisted man in WWII.  To understand why my grandfather, a WWI combat veteran objected, read this: A clarification and a century old story.

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 Above, on the left, my Father stands in the rubble of downtown Seoul, Korea, in 1952. At the time, my Father was a company commander with ACB-ONE

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Above, Father at the table (holding the papers) Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MAC-V) in Saigon, 1966.

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The photo above was taken in early 1968,  In my 5-year-old hand, I hold the Bronze Star awarded to my father during his 1967 tour in Vietnam.

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Above, my father’s official USN photo circa 1975.  His service remains the centerpiece of his life’s work. Please take a minute to read: William Edward Wynne Sr. –  Father’s Day Notes; it is a story I wrote about father on his 84th birthday.

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Below an excerpt from : Thought for The Day – Have we squandered the great gift?

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“I have not watched TV at home in many, many years. But here, in the home of my parents, I sit beside by father, his mobility robbed by age, as he looks into the TV to find some evidence that we have not squandered the gift, a free world, which we received from the men of his generation, perhaps your father among them. It is a gift we didn’t earn, they purchased it for us anyway, at a staggering human cost.

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Father is an eternal optimist, he only needs to find some trace of good that was built on the foundation we were bequeathed. But in an hour, there is nothing to hold on to, nothing to salvage from the endless waste of consumerism, at astronomic levels of narcissism, all acts of selfless heroic deeds pushed aside by a tide of greed and gluttony, bathed in comments from the most inane actors pretending to be journalists, offering no insight, only triggering knee-jerk emotional reactions to dog whistle phrases.

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I do not look at the screen, I only see it reflected in my fathers glasses as sifts through news channels looking for some bit of rectitude hidden in the waste. When I can take no more, I put my hand on his, and impulsively say “I am sorry”. For a moment he looks in my eyes to assess if I really understand what the gift cost. At this moment I understand that every old story was told in the hopes that we might understand what was done for us, not so we would thank them, just so that we wouldn’t waste it. On this day, I remain profoundly sorry for how little we have done with the gift.”

-Ww