Every Friday I treat myself to a cup of coffee from a local bagel shop in my town. I love walking in at my normal time of 6:30 am because of the people I see there. A lot of the times there are teachers just like me getting their celebratory Friday caffeine for their commute into work. There are also many towns people picking up their coffee and breakfast for the long day ahead. I love this bagel shop. I feel at home there and enjoying starting my day with all the other customers that jingle the bell above the door.
This past Friday as I was getting my coffee I noticed a man in his late 60’s pouring his 20 ounce cup up to the brim. I raised my head to say good morning when I saw he was wearing a cap that stated, ‘Vietnam Vet.’ I recognized this cap immediately. My father wears the same hat everywhere he goes. The man reminded me of my father in his blue collar attire. Right down to his beard, light blue uniform jacket, and perfectly worn work boots.
Growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s it was almost like a family secret that my dad served in Vietnam. He would of never worn a hat displaying his past. Even though my father is a decorated soldier, that earned the bronze star, we just did not talk about it. I remember my father telling me it was a different time and many people did not agree with the war, and because he went when he was drafted they were not too happy with him. When I asked how he earned his many medals that I would hold in my hand, he simply would reply, “It’s not important.” During that time I did witness how Vietnam vets were portrayed in TV and movies. It was not always flattering. Unlike, how the soldiers from the ‘Greatest Generation’ were viewed as heroes for fighting in WWII.
Now that my father wears his cap, I have seen people walk across a room to thank him for his service. I watch how humble he is when he replies, “You’re welcome,” or “It was nothing. Just serving my country.” I try to return that recognition to anyone I see wearing a similar hat. After I said good morning to the man at the coffee counter I added, “Thank you for your service. My father is also a Vietnam vet.”
The man looks up and says, “Oh yeah. When was he there?”
“I think it was 1969 to 1971.”
He gives me a half smile, “Those were the same years I was there. But I was no hero. I just was a med tech working in a hospital. I never did anything your dad probably did.”
This surprised me. My father was in a military hospital during the war. It was for malaria, however in resent years he has shared the horrors he witnessed while he recovered from his illness. The devastating wounds and brutality that the soldiers suffered due to the battles they were in. Standing right in front of me was a man that was there with those soldiers, helping them heal. He must of been around 20 years old at the time. He was only just coming out of his childhood years. His innocence must of been shattered.
He started toward the door. As his hand touched the handle I felt an almost frantic need to say something. I blurted out, “You are a hero. You always were.” He stopped in his tracks, he bowed his head, and raised his hand holding the small white paper bag that contained his breakfast to acknowledge my words. Then the bell chimed and he walked out the door.