Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Semper Fi

What It Means to Be the Daughter of a Marine

I am the oldest daughter of a United States Marine. Born in the Pink Doctor Building during the final years of a Cold War conflict we did not win, I learned to walk on Honolulu’s sandy beaches, waving to the improbable sky hippopotamus that hovered over the sea behind my base house, its tandem rotors thumping rhythms I felt in my bones, its lights flashing red and green, port and starboard, my father’s way of signaling his love to my mother and me as we collected blue glass balls that washed up on our beach. The glass balls, my father said, once floated fishing nets in far-away Japan.

My father, USMC Captain Theodore Thomas Long, Jr., piloted CH-46 Sea Knights during the final gasps of the Vietnam War. He earned his nickname, “Machine Gun,” when he asked his CO to transfer him from an assault squadron to a unit that flew medical rescue missions. Anybody who knew my father knows he could not have flown a gunship. He was not that kind of guy—he was the kind of guy who wept every time he read the ending of A Tale of Two Cities, who sang “When You Walk through a Storm” so clear and sweet it gave you goose bumps.  

My father’s Vietnam was not Ken Rodger’s Vietnam, not the “confused alarms of struggle and flight” described so vividly in Ken’s documentary of the siege of Khe Sahn, Bravo: Common Men, Uncommon Valor. You see, my father was an officer. He joined the ROTC in college, where he majored in Political Science. Dad started his thesis with the intention of defending the Vietnam War and the United States’ role in it. Upon researching the subject, he concluded that the war was indefensible. Then he graduated and went to fly helicopters in Vietnam anyway, because that’s what you do when you love your country: you support it, right or wrong.  And my Dad, the fatherless liberal Democrat Mormon boy from Utah, loved America.

Here is what it means to be the daughter of a United States Marine who served in Vietnam. Your first word is “jet” (“No, helicopter! Helicopter!” my Dad would say).  You belt out “From the halls of Montezuma” while the other kids are singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” You are never, ever allowed to say the word “Army.” When you forget to do your chores, your Dad yells, “Drop and give me 20,” and you do. On Sundays, the only movies you can watch are the following: Patton, The Great Escape, Victory at Sea, and Chariots of Fire. But mostly Patton. You and your siblings can reenact the entire film.

In sixth grade, on your Dad’s advice, you read The Iliad, holding your breath: “Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles.” Your teacher is disappointed with you because you write an epic poem in dactylic hexameter about a war between ants and wasps instead of a pretty lyric about butterflies.  In high school, you have your first crush on Lawrence of Arabia and begin to contemplate the oxymoronic problem of Heroism in the Modern Age. You learn what the word ambiguous means. You learn that things are not black and white. You learn to love America anyway.

In 1991, when you are home on break from college, driving with your Dad, who has just been diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (a war he will not win), you find your way blocked by barricades, a parade with tanks and ticker tape to honor heroes of the Gulf War. Your Dad starts to cry. “They spit on me,” he says. “When I came home, they spit on me.”

I thought of all these things when I saw Bravo for the first time. Author and 1968 Khe Sahn siege survivor Ken Rodgers has been a longtime friend and mentor. I wrote my first novel (probably for myself) under his tutelage. There is nothing like learning the power of strong verbs from a man who experienced them like Ken did. Seeing Bravo made me understand some things I’d always wondered about my own father, about the war that shaped him, and by extension, me.

What I learned  from watching Bravo is this: you are never more alive than when you are facing death. In that moment, you are the Ubermensch, hyper-alive, hyper-aware. You can see bullets pass you by. You can contemplate their curves, their hard, deadly tips, the lovely crimson clouds that they create when they impact something not protected by a flak jacket. Watching Bravo, I learned that war is hell. But I also finally understood why we keep waging it. At some level, war is fun. And nothing else in life quite lives up to that powerful chemical cocktail your body slams when you face death (except maybe childbirth, but that’s another story).

Here is what it means to be the daughter of a United States Marine who served in Vietnam. When your father dies at age 50, they bury him near Hill Air Force Base, in the shadow of mountains, beneath the flight path. A bugler plays Taps. The guns salute. They hand your mom a folded flag. You don’t know whether the cancer that killed him was part of a cluster that afflicted Vietnam pilots, or whether it was because he was born in Reno, Nevada in 1944, or whether it was just one of those things.

You love America anyway. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

Read more about Bravo at http://bravotheproject.com


  1. you are an amazing writer.....

  2. Mental Illness is a myth. I am surprised that a person with anarchist beliefs, should be so gullible as to accept the medical model. Read some libertarians, like Thomas Szasz and then explore discipline as opposed to drugs and ideology as a way out.

    1. @David Robert-What good are you trying to accomplish with your hateful thoughts? The world would be better served if you would follow, "If you cant say something nice, dont say anything at all"

    2. @DavidRobert: I feel exceedingly sorry for your misguided thoughts. Calling mental illness a myth is like calling the Revolutionary War a myth. There is too much evidence to support its existence for anyone with half a brain to deny it. Grow up.

  3. @David Robert

    You're an idiot. You have no evidence for this argument other than the usual string conspiracy theories.

  4. What a beautiful way to commemorate your father! Those who serve in the armed forces, whatever the country, will always face dilemmas that challenged your father; particularly when they were involved in an unpopular war.


  5. What can I say? My eyes filled and my heart felt squeezed when I read your blog... My family has a lot of mental illnesses, and as a caregiver, I also struggle keeping my family above water and moving on. Sad to see that mental illness is viewed as taboo or as a myth. It's NOT a myth.

    Hugs... thank you for speaking up for us who struggle, trying to make sense of mental illnesses, feeling hopeful on some days and hopeless on other days, etc. Thank you for sharing it with us!

  6. "Never allowed to say Army." So funny, but with so many friends who are Marines, I can totally see it. I grew up in Hawaii and remember looking for the pink hospital from the airplane because it was always so easy to spot. :)

  7. My father was USAF and I was raised on military bases in the sixties and seventies. You are exactly, precisely, right (and funny) in your writing about this particular life.

  8. Awmi.net for help with your son. I'm sorry this Earth holds terrible things like you are going through.

  9. I just returned from American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine conference in Las Vegas where Dr. Amen talked about the brains of these children with Intermittent violet behavior diagnosis. This is an organic problem in the brain that is curable. Please contact Dr. Amen for more information and get this information out there.

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  11. @David Robert,

    While this courageous mother bears no responsibility for her precious son's illness, you are fully responsible for your ignorance and hatred.

    Your attitude is disgusting.

  12. My son, now age 24, has paranoid schizophrenia. How many years we spent afraid to go to sleep at night, not knowing if "the sleep demons" that kept him awake at night (what he called the voices or thoughts he was hearing. It was so scary. So vary scary. Several year ago I wrote a blog post about it: http://gardenofeagan.blogspot.com/2006/10/as-long-as-its-healthy.html

  13. I love your post. I have always held a high respect for these men in uniform.

  14. as a firm supporter of our nation's brave and selfless, thank you for this insight into your marine childhood. I laughed at the never say army as I recall my friends from various branches and their goodnatured (albeit serious) ribbing and one-upping.

    as a mother, I thank you for you insight on your challenges as a mother. God bless you and your family and may your days be full of hope, faith and love.

  15. I thought I would comment on a thread that didn't have over a thousand comments. I too have a son named Michael. He is an only child and I am a single mother. You and I are in very similar boats, but my son is 16 and bigger than me.
    Our paper trail is being created through state mental health services rather than criminal history (but he's got a little of that too) Autism, Aspergers, Oppositional Defiance Disorder, yep I've heard them all too.
    At this point we finally have some fairly intense services lined up for in the home. I'm hoping they will work but it has taken this long to get here and I am afraid to be living with him. Here's hoping that both of pour Michael's get the help they need.

  16. As an army VN vet, enlisted man, myeloma victim, and lrp, thanks. I have so many friends who died of sudden and aggressive cancers that I cannot count them. Most are like me, short timers, so we get little from the VA.

    RIP and salute to your dad.

  17. I know this is what you might expect from a hippie who's your father's age, but here goes...
    Maybe your son is bring your father's karma forward. I don't think it was "my country, right or wrong" but rather the imagined (and quite likely!) shame & embarrassment- and worse- that would have befallen your father for going with his personal beliefs.
    I'd also posit that psychedelic drugs (currently illegal) can also produce the incredible feelings of "being alive!" without the need of a battlefield situation to provoke it into existence. 'We' don't really 'need war' to get a sense of 'ultimate experiences'... but, since that's a 'traditional' way to get there, that's what we have (unless we're outlaws).
    My father was Army Air Force in WWII, flew 53 missions from the Italian Boot over Germany & Romania in '44 (B-17 pilot @ 24) and came home to a 'mystery ailment' that almost killed him. When it was time to re-up he said "no"... and also refused to sign up for Reserves. He'd had it with war. They changed his discharge papers from "honorable" to "general" and washed their hands of him. He passed away 2 years ago, and could live with himself to the end.

  18. you're a really beautiful writer, and a beautiful mother and daughter, i'm sure. i'm not sure whether you'll see this or not, but if you do, and if you are open to it, i'd like to offer help for your son. email me at thedategirl@gmail.com if you're interested. if not, i can also refer you to my mentor, who has over 40 years of experience in his field.
    sending love and light to you and your family <3 :)

  19. Yes, you are an eloquent writer, please continue blogging. Those of us who can barely put two words together can see the beauty of your words in their own life. I admire each veteran (all branches) past and present, they deserve so much more than the VA offers them. I wish you lived in East Tennessee, I would love to have long talks with you. I have read all of your blog entries, my heart feels for you and makes me say "God love your heart!" I'll keep you in my prayers.
    May God bless you,

  20. Your blog is an obsession with death. I am so scared for your children. If you don't want them, give them to their father. Please, please don't hurt them

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  23. I do worry a bit about your concern with death.

    BUT: You are a very good writer. And you seem to be getting the pain out of yourself. Writing is very therapeutic. Do NOT Stop! Writing is better than a lot of other things you could do!

    I am very sorry to hear about how your dad went. Mine went in a similar way, but he had worked in the Uranium Mines of Elliot Lake in the 60's. You know... the Cold War.

    Your dad and the other soldiers who went to 'Nam, were (for the vast majority) NOT bad men. I am almost 57, so I know this! (I nearly ended up there.) They did their duty. The evil was in the competition between 2 political systems. The incompetence was in the politicians and diplomats who could not come up with a better solution. Yes, there was the odd Lt. Calley. That was tragic. He was a loose canon. That, sadly, happens in all wars. That is one reason why war is bad.

    But men like your dad, got caught in a bad time. They did NOT Lose. Our side lost, yes, but the soldiers did not. Explaining that, would take a 25 page Political Science Essay, and I will NOT bore you with that.

    Remember your mum and dad. Take care of yourself. Take care of your family. Take care of your friends. And let them take care of you, too. Care, is a 2 way street. It has to be. "To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction."

    Hang in there. Semper fi.

  24. <<< I was one of these kids>>>

    Lisa, I think I can give some insight about what goes on in the minds of these kids. I was one when I was younger. Now as an adult (I am 32) I am some what normal. It took me all of my 20's to figure out exactly what sickness I had that turned me into a monster. I can write a novel as to why I believe these kids act this way. People generally only read short comments. If you are interested I can give you my email address and we can discuss this. I think I can give some good insite.

    About me now, I am a medical professional. I studied zoology and chemistry in college. I have a daughter of my own. I have no temper problems that one would classify as abnormal (when someone mistreats one of my coworkers or friends I get annoyed but it is to a normal extent). Anyways, please contact me. I believe I have a unique perspective on the situation.

  25. Dear Liza, (writer of the Article)

    We must meet, if you are "Adam's Mom" I would be Adam. Growing up by all accounts I was very much like Michael, my mother had similar protocol I was on many cocktails of meds for every acronym the the russian dictionary. I was labeled everything from bi polar, autistic, ADHD and then some. I was a colorful child most of the time and throughout school I was always a "joy" to have in class even going as far as being told by a teacher that she requested me for her class. At home I was in my room listening to classical music, drawing, painting. I was an odd child with few constant friends. After a failed attempt at suicide I was lucky enough to find photography. Today I'm a Photographer/ Cinematographer, I write and Direct small films in 3 countries. I haven't taken a prescription drug in 12 years, I dont have rage issues, my days of depression are few and far between but are never hopeless. Between the good there were horrific times, threats, attacks, and incidences where police were involved when mom couldn't hug me tight enough anymore. I even turned the tables on my parents with the law accusing them of things I can't even understand let alone those around me.

    We must meet, talk and listen. You mentioned benefits, but the whatever job you have it isn't the cause you are needed in. If your benefits were taken care of could we put our entrepreneurial spirits behind every Michael before they become Adam. You can find me @bjornwilde

  26. I realize the entire internet is strip mining your blog right now and it could be a while before you read this but: you're AWESOME.

    And your kids are going to be fine, because you are clearly a smart and devoted parent.

    Warts and all, babe. Keep it up. And don't take any guff from these swine.

  27. Thank you. This is perfect.I'm a teacher, and this is exactly what people need to know.

  28. I was born at Quantico, my father just home from Korea. A beautiful tribute to your father.

    Semper Fi

  29. Just had to add my two cents. My son is an the (gasp) army and I am so proud of him. I support our troops past present and future and it breaks my heart that our Vietnam Vets were so mistreated by the country they defended. I thank every service member I see especially the Vietnan Vets.
    On the parenting subject you are amazing. You are using words to expel your frustration anger and pain on a blog for the the world to see. I realize the world is toobusy skewering you to see the beauty and truth you portray. Thank you for being a voice for those kept in darkness for too long.

  30. I am the daughter of a Marine who fought in Vietnam and he abandoned me because i was a girl and he wanted a boy. Not all experiences are the same. My father wouldn't know what the Illiad is...he isn't that smart. So this is just your version. I'm smarter for not having grown up with him in my life. He was abusive and manipulative. So...guess this is subjective.

  31. Thank-you for this posting...we have to bring attention to this issue especially for parents that have mentally ill and potentially dangerous children and don't know what to do to get them the proper treatment.
    I know of a family with such a son. At 15, he threatens to kill his parents and continuously says he hates them. He screams, slams doors, throws food, uses excess profanity, parades around the house as if he were shouting Nazi slogans, makes believe that he has a machine gun in his hands and he aims it at people and shoots at them making machine gun sounds.
    One evening, he snuck into his parents room and his father awoke with his son's hands around his throat, choking him!
    The police have been called twice because he ran away from home...the last time he was found by a police helicopter using infrared.
    Up until last year, he was a staight A student and now he is failing the second school he is attending because he was expelled from the first school.
    These parents don't know what to do. Any suggestions?

  32. I love what you've written here. My dad was Navy, but much of it sounds the same. :-)

  33. My father was Navy, but much of this sounds the same. Thank you for sharing.

  34. I saw you on CNN yesterday and was so upset that you were even on there to have to explain yourself to anyone. I was yelling at the TV when the reporter asked you "so what is going to happen to Michael if he grows out of this years later and people do know him and "dog him for it." She is an idiot. I was yelling at the TV tell her "It's people like you who don't have any understanding of mental illness. What if her son does "grow out of this" and she is in the "hiring seat" is she going to hold it against him? You should never have to defend the decisions you have made for your son to no one. I know first hand what the message is that you want to get out there about mental illness. And it's people like that closed minded reporter asking you stupid questions about why you wrote this blog? No one, and there is no one there holding your son but you no doctors, no reporters, no concerned citizens about you exposing his illness to the public when he needs the help the most. Instead of being worried about how you exposed "his illness" to the world these people should be worried about how to help anyone and everyone by giving them a soft place to land, some help, some support. I am DEBRA RODRIQUEZ'S sister she suffers from Mental Illness, lives out on streets, she won't take medication,she is one step away from hurting herself or someone else. I have talked to everyone and our laws protect her they say she is competent enough to know her name, where she is etc. to choose not to take medication. I pray everyday that I don't get that telephone call that she did because then society is going to ask how come her family didn't help her? I can't help her there is nothing I can do to help and one day unfortunately your son will be of age and you won't be able to help him either if he doesn't want help.

  35. Hopefully this will help you.
    God bless you for speaking out. It took alot of courage and faith. It's the truth. There are advocates for Children in Therapy. Child of Rage came to mind, the story about beth thomas. attached is the website about therapy she went through and how it help.


    Advocates for Children in Therapy is an educational and public advocacy organization dedicated to halting the dangerous cruelty done to children by Attachment Therapy, its associated Therapeutic Parenting practices, and other unvalidated, pseudoscientific interventions for the unrecognized diagnosis called “Attachment Disorder.”

  36. don't tell me that ardent lie
    dulce et decorum est
    pro patria mori

    belgian cold war army brat and rabid peace activist....

    if you ae on facebook, i'd love to link up with you...

    if you would like to, you can findme under my name monique d'hooghe

    i hope you and "michael" get the help you need

  37. I cant believe so many people came here to hate! Perhaps they feel you welcome this by putting yourself out there, but I dont see the benefit of bring vitriol to someone's doorstep, whether you agree with her or not.

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I regret that I don't have time to respond to comments on this blog, but I really appreciate your insights. As we speak up for our kids, we can end the stigma of mental illness.