I was 9 at the time and still remember the car ride to the Norfolk airport in 1968 when my dad left Virginia for Vietnam. And I still remember the fateful knock on our front door in 1969, when an Army chaplain informed our mother he was never coming home again.
The government mailed a widow’s check to my 29-year-old mother, Margot, who was faced with raising four young children alone. We buried our father with military honors in his hometown cemetery near the park where he had played as a young boy. The Army sent medals he had earned, including the Silver Star and a letter from President Nixon, and gave our mom the flag that draped his coffin. The Army sent no psychologists to help our family. There were no support groups, no Internet help sources and no Facebook groups connecting us with other survivors. The anti-Vietnam sentiment was at its height in 1969 America. No one in our family dared talk about it.
That was until November 1982, when our family was invited to the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. I was unable to attend, as I had just begun working at NBC in California, following my graduation from Virginia Tech (which I afforded thanks to the War Orphans Education Assistance Act).
Both my sisters, Carroll and Angie, attended the ceremony, along with their husbands. Carroll called me afterward with an excitement in her voice: “Pat, you wouldn’t have believed it!” she exclaimed. “Dad’s name is etched on the black granite wall, and there were men from his company who were looking for his name, just like we were.” Our father, SFC Marshall E. Robertson, who had given his life for his country in the Vietnam conflict, had not been forgotten after all. But rather, he had been memorialized in the most meaningful way on The Wall, in our nation’s capital.
The Wall changed everything.
Carroll and I went to work searching for our father. We had lost 13 years and had no understanding of his death, and we were not going to lose one more day.
I flew home from California to Virginia for Christmas that year, and we began the search for our dad. Our mother, in her grief, in her youth, in her attempt at survival, had stored all our dad’s memories in a single cedar chest. She closed the chest and moved on with her life. There was no other choice back then. Now it was time to open the chest.
There he was: his letters home from Vietnam, his voice on tape, the flag, the medals, photos of us as a family before Vietnam intervened. My sisters and I put the letters in chronological order, from the first one in October 1968 to his last letter in August 1969. Almost 300 letters.
We spent days reading them, searching for understanding, feeling his love for our mother and for us. It was heart-wrenching. The smells of the letters, his handwriting, his devotion to his family, his growing disillusion for the war, his despair over mounting casualties, his concern for his young soldiers—it was all there. “How are the kiddies?” he asked in each letter. The kiddies were Carroll, 10; Patricia, 9; Angela, 7; Erhard, 6. Three girls and one boy. When we got to the last letter, we sat in silence. There it was, in his own words, in his own handwriting: the reason he died in Vietnam.
SFC Marshall Robertson, 33, had led his boys for months, but his tour was coming to an end. He was pulled out of the front lines in summer of 1969 to begin rotating out, preparing to go home. He was what he called “short” in many of his final letters, counting down the days until he would be home with his family. But then word came to base camp that the platoon leader, an experienced lieutenant, had been evacuated on a medical helicopter out. A green lieutenant would be taking over the platoon and leading them into a hell called Que Son Valley. SFC Robertson felt he had no choice but to hop the chopper back to battle to lead his men, mostly 19- and 20-year-old boys. But first he wrote his wife to explain why he was rejoining his men.
My dear darling,
Sometimes a man has to do what he must. Please forgive me for this but my men have a brand new officer. The casualties have been high and I feel I need to go out there and help them. I know you will not understand but try to see my side of it. My love, if I should die over here, it will not be for my country or this country, it will be for my boys….
Tell the kiddies that I love them and if this is my last letter, please remember me.
When I returned to L.A., I received a letter from someone in my dad’s division. It informed me of a book, Death Valley by Keith William Nolan, that told of our father’s heroism during the summer offensive of 1969. I spoke to Mr. Nolan via phone, and he provided the names of men from my father’s platoon. I phoned the “green” lieutenant whom my father had gone to help, and I wasn’t sure he would remember my dad. “I’m SFC Marshall Robertson’s daughter,” I said to the stranger on the phone. There was silence and then sobs. For years he had carried guilt about the sergeant who died helping him carry out his first mission. I assured him the family doesn’t blame the survivors.
“Your father was a true professional and the platoon followed orders because they respected him. Everyone just liked the hell out of him,” the lieutenant told me.
I also connected with Stan Cantrelle, the experienced lieutenant who had been in battle with my dad for 10 months before being evacuated. Stan and I have become friends, and he has shared with me some treasured photos of my dad in country.
Stan’s first email to me, May 25, 2010:
Your dad and I slept side by side each night that I was in the field and shared many conversations about our families. He adored his family and could not wait to get back to all of you. Your dad was one who cared about his men and desperately wanted to get all of them home to their families, along with himself.
Two decades after our father’s death, we finally had some answers and began our healing process. I don’t blame anyone for the silence that surrounded the families after the Vietnam War. But I also don’t apologize to anyone who thinks silence should continue. We should have a deep devotion to their memories.
Our father was a brave soldier who served his country with honor. The qualities that made him a great father at home were taken with him to Vietnam and extended to the sons of other families.
Memorial Day is a day to recognize and give gratitude to all those who sacrificed so much.