Memories of My Father
“The deceased, Maj. Robert B. Swenck, was survived by his wife, Donna, and his three daughters, Stacy, Lori and Heidi.” How strange I felt reading that obituary! At age twelve, what had I survived? I still lived in our little brick house in Fern Creek, Kentucky, I still went to Fern Creek High School, and I still slept in my own bed at night. My father had died in Vietnam, his chopper shot down by a sniper on Thanksgiving Day in 1971. I didn't understand then, as I do now, thirty-one years later, what I had survived.
The morning after Thanksgiving that year, as we were eating donuts and listening to music, an unmarked car pulled up in the driveway. Two men in dress blues stepped out. My mother collapsed on the front porch. They carried her crying to the couch, and we were told our father’s chopper had crashed in the river and he was missing in action. Mom sobbed; I felt shocked and numb. I took my two little sisters, ages six and nine, downstairs to the basement. We stayed quiet and listened, forgotten in the confusion. For two days we made sandwiches and stood apart, watching. Dad’s body was recovered two days later. Mom cried some more. People brought us food for a few days and then we were left alone. Mom stopped crying and walked around the house with a distant stare. A dark cloud was in our house for a long time.
For months I imagined my father showing up at my classroom door to take my hand and walk me home. Even now, I wonder if his spirit will ever visit me in a dream, giving me guidance I still long for.
Soon after his death I remember running into Mom in a dark hall of the house and her sharp intake of breath as she said, “You look just like your Dad.” That Christmas I put on mascara for the first time, and when I went to show Mom she broke into fresh crying that would not stop. I stood there in the middle of the floor. I couldn’t help being a reminder of sorrow. Did I remind everyone of Death, my face an omen of the grief Death brings?
I didn’t understand what war was. We had been mainly sheltered from television images of the war. Besides, those men wearing camouflage running around on the ground were not my dad. My dad was a pilot; he wore a plain flight suit when he went to work. He was doing something Top Secret and the return address on his letters was fake. As far as I knew, Dad was at work on a very long mission. When he was killed, I did not know why I felt so ashamed.
As I grew older, I came to hate the Vietnam War and blamed the government, even though I had no idea about the war’s causes and avoided any mention of it. I like to think of my teenage years as the time I managed to not get caught or killed doing things I’d rather not mention. Hating the war helped when I had to tell someone my father died fighting there. I couldn’t say he had been drafted unwillingly; he was a career soldier who served two tours in Vietnam. Joining in the belief that it was a bad war made it easier to get along with others who hated it, which was most everyone I met. I did not know then that my father had been a hero.
I found out about that from The Trunk. One day, Mom appeared and deposited a heavy blue trunk in my living room. She firmly announced that these were my father’s things and were now mine to keep. She was finished with them. I wasn’t so sure I wanted the trunk, so I put it away in the closet. Many months later I opened it. There sat his Air Force hat, the silk band stained with sweat. The musty dress blues, a mysterious black beret, scattered medals, stack of letters tied with yarn, a folded triangle flag. I remembered the casket flag, men with quick white gloves folding it into a neat bundle, placing it with finality on Mom’s lap. Years of silence, all bound up into this one truck, now airing in my spare room.
I had seen the medals as a child, set out on the bookcase in the basement. He had earned most of them during his first tour in 1969. Now I saw what they were: A Silver Star, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, an Airman’s Medal for Valor (he was most proud of this one), eight Air Medals and a Purple Heart.
I read over 100 letters he had written to Mom and to us.
I found out that Dad was a highly skilled Air Force chopper pilot for the 20th Special Operations Squadron (the Green Hornets) who was flying “sensitive and classified missions” on the real, secret front lines of the war. The 20th SOS’s mission was to rescue long-range reconnaissance patrols on the ground in Cambodia during a time when both the United States and North Vietnam were denying any involvement there. Dad repeatedly flew extremely hazardous missions head-on into gunfire with frequent disregard for his own life. One time he and his men ran to a crashed and burning chopper and lifted it up enough to free a man who had been pinned underneath. Reading the letter he wrote to my mother that same evening took my breath away. He wrote, “As soon as we got him free and clear, the whole thing blew up sky high.” His muddy fingerprints faced me from the paper.
Since opening the trunk, my search for information has intensified. I recently made several personal contacts with men who flew with my father: Dave, Bob, R.T., Leroy, Phil, Maury, Ted, Mike, to name a few. Bob, the group’s steadfast historian, is everyone’s point-of-contact. With Bob’s help, I attended a reunion where the men sang their remembrance song and included my dad’s name. Dave visited me and told riveting stories for hours, some his wife had never heard. They all lived at their “forward operating location” with the native Montenyards in the highland mountains between Vietnam and Cambodia. I have a photograph of Maury with his big coke-bottle glasses on, telling stories to the kids from the village and giving them haircuts. In another photo Phil proudly points to the flattened beer cans he used to patch the bullet holes in the choppers. Leroy, the gunner everyone wanted on their chopper, had a large intimidating rattle he had made from pelvic bones. Ted described how it felt to be stuck in an underground bunker for days while bombs raged down from the sky, shaking the ground under which they could not sleep. They say that my dad kept a cool head in battle. Coming from all walks of life, these men met as soldiers and saved each other’s lives many times. Their mission was extremely dangerous, they were using unsafe and rigged equipment in a remote and clandestine environment, and some died. Yet these outstanding men do not believe they did anything special. They tell me stories about Dad’s bravery and skill, and about his ever-present wit. They respected him. The day he died, he had flown a successful volunteer mission in the rain to rescue fourteen Navy men from battle. After sharing a Thanksgiving turkey sandwich with them at their home base, he was flying back low under the rain clouds when a sniper’s bullet shot him dead in midair.
The Green Hornet motto, written on the latrine wall, was “You have never lived until you've almost died. For those who fight for it, life has a flavor that the protected will never know.” My father’s utmost bravery is part of a life I can never know and part of me at the same time. An empty space in me is comforted when I hear his buddies talk. One man said he had not contacted me because he was afraid I would blame him for my father’s death. Oh, No! No blame here. I tell them that their memories are all I have left of Dad. That their stories, no matter how gory, help fill a hole in me. When I hear their stories I am riveted; afterwards I feel calm, relieved. The ancients knew better than we that telling specific tales of the fallen one’s bravery helps the family heal with grace. Dave recently found a battle report written in Dad’s own hand and brought it to me. It took me months to get up the nerve to read it. I finally read it quickly, like one removes a band aid. For a few moments, I was there, in the chopper with him, lightening speed decisions, bullets screaming past our heads, no room for fear. When I finished my heart was pounding and I was breathing hard. It was a description of the flight that had earned him the Silver Star. By sharing that report with me, Dave helped me piece together a living, breathing legacy to go with the cold, hard medal.
My own memories of my dad have surfaced. I remember him being tall and having feet so big I could sit on one and get a ride around the house. He and Mom had lots of friends and gave big parties. He would kiss Mom in the kitchen or squeeze her knee during road trips in the car. He affectionately rubbed my head until my hair shook, and he challenged me to always do my best in school. He taught us proper manners in a restaurant. His shadowy presence looming in the doorway was enough to make us stop our loud nighttime giggling and lay quiet as mice in our beds. He was always telling jokes and could make anything sound funny. He told us he had earned the Silver Star by flying a general to use a real latrine.
When Dad returned from his first tour in Vietnam, he arrived at Staniford Field Airport still wearing his flight suit. The airport personnel made him enter the terminal through the back door so he wouldn’t upset the passengers or be called baby-killer. I remember Mom and us three girls waiting just inside the big plate glass windows, watching each person walk across the tarmac, looking for Dad. Suddenly Mom flew around toward us and spoke quickly in a tone that made me know her instructions were very important. “Sit here, girls. Wait and don’t move. I have to go meet your father at another gate.” Mom’s look was stern and fierce, but she wasn’t mad at us. We sat wide-eyed for a long time, and finally there was Dad walking down the hall, Mom clinging to his neck. We ran and grabbed his waist, his knees, whatever we could reach according to our heights. He tried to hug us all at the same time with different hugs. Mom needed a certain wife-hug, Heidi a baby hug up in his arms, and Lori and I some little girl hugs. Mine came with a little respect attached since I was the oldest. Lori got the rough house since she was a tomboy and his favorite. We were so happy to see him.
However, when Dad got home, he was different. When we three jumped on him to tickle him in his chair, he growled and pushed us away. He turned mean. He got mad at the dog over an accident and threw it up against the wall. He broke a guy’s nose at a party for making a comment about Vietnam. Mom tells how he woke up from nightmares in a cold sweat. All he could think about was going back over there, and that’s what he did a few months later. When we drove him to the airport, I cried uncontrollably in the car. I did not know that would be the last time I would ever see him.
I am proud to be Dad’s daughter. My Mother deserves a medal of her own. She is an original Super Mom who worked full-time and raised three young girls up into happy, successful adults. The strength of both parents lives on in us. My sisters still don’t like to talk about Dad, but one day our children will be glad to hear about him.
Bob Swenck never saw his daughters graduate college (all three of us!) or get married; he can’t kiss his grandchildren or hold his wife’s hand as they grow old. Heroes historically have fought for a good cause. My father was a hero because he believed he was defending the freedom of his family and country. He could not know he was jousting against the windmills of Communism. The Viet Cong was a real enough enemy, vicious in battle. He fought hard and bravely and gave his life for his fellow man. He deserves the same honor as any soldier. He did not die for nothing. He died for his belief in freedom, because he was a soldier doing his job. I write this to give him that honor.