When my mom and I would talk about traveling to England or France, he would say he’d seen enough of the world when he served in the Navy during the Korean War.
And for years that’s all I knew about his time in Korea. He never talked about his war days. He didn’t go to reunions or keep up with military buddies. He tightly locked that chapter of his life shut.
President Barack Obama marks the 60th anniversary of the Korean War this weekend with a speech at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington.
On Friday, Obama said in his proclamation declaring Saturday to be Korean War Veterans Armistice Day: “Today, America pauses to observe the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War — a conflict that defined a generation and decided the fate of a nation. We remember the troops who hit the beaches when Communist forces were pressing south; who pushed back, and fought their way north through hard mountains and bitter cold. We remember ordinary men and women who showed extraordinary courage through 3 long years of war, fighting far from home to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.”
My dad, who died in 2009, would be proud to see Obama laying a wreath on the memorial. He never felt like the men who served in that war got the recognition they deserved. And they didn’t.
The Korean War wasn’t even considered a war when the United States first got involved. President Harry S. Truman simply called it a “police action” since military activity was conducted under the United Nations. By the time this conflict rolled around, Americans suffered from fatigue from the long years of World War II. Sadly, Korea became known as the “The Forgotten War” or “The Unknown War.”
Occasionally, as he got older, my dad would mutter something about this when he would see World War II footage of ticker tape parades. Sometimes he would say that no one protested the Korean War like the Vietnam War because no one even knew the United States was in a war. When I asked what he did in the war, he would say only that he worked on a hospital ship, and that the weather was bitterly cold.
It was only after my dad became sick with diabetes and congestive heart failure and started visiting the VA Hospital regularly that I learned the true nightmare of Korea. My dad would dribble out pieces of his war time in waiting rooms, chatting with other veterans. He never participated in combat but served on the USS Repose where he saw unspeakable horrors – men buried at sea, men with body parts blown off, men who cried at night for God to let them die.
As my dad talked, I started piecing together why he was often withdrawn and moody. For years, he suffered silently from Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and told no one. His generation of men didn’t believe in therapy and pills to make you feel better. They returned from Korea and got on with their lives – landing good jobs or starting their own businesses, marrying and becoming fathers. They buried their nightmares in drink and career. That worked for a while until the gloom began seeping into real life.
After my dad nearly died in 2006 from a heart procedure, his visions of Korea emerged and never vanished again. It haunted him to think that those young men who were buried at sea – or dumped as he would say – would never return home. He talked about a young man who had both feet shot off in combat. I sat in his hospital room late at night, watching him struggle with painful memories and spiraling into panic.
Many of the young VA social workers and nurses weren’t even aware of Korea or the fact that veterans suffered from PTSD from that war. They would often loop Korea with the Vietnam War and talk of jungles and heat instead of mountains and cold. I would try to explain that those two wars were not the same, but my explanation often fell on deaf years.
Even after my dad went home from the hospital, he couldn’t sleep at night, fearful of the dreams that would visit him if he closed his eyes. His horror became our horror as my mom and I tried to talk him away from darkness. I know my dad died having never received the adequate treatment he needed for his PTSD.
It’s nice that Korean veterans are getting some recognition this weekend for their sacrifice. It’s a reminder for those of us who claim to support the troops to honor that sacrifice by taking a little time to educate ourselves about America’s “Forgotten War.” It’s much more meaningful than a yellow ribbon car magnet.
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt” and “1000 Best Bartender’s Recipes.” She writes frequently for Reuters, TakePart, and numerous other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker.