First Person: Veterans Day, Personal Loss, and Insight

WW2_Iwo_Jima_flag_raising.jpg
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By Daniel Casey Adkins

Veterans Day and Memorial Day are reminders of my family history and my personal loss. They also remind me why I decided to become a democratic socialist.

When I was young, my father died leading a Marine platoon in attack on Iwo Jima during World War II. In the attack, half of his men were either killed or wounded. When he was hit, he refused medical aid and ordered the medic to take care of the Marines that were in his command. He was shot again and died.

My father took responsibility for confronting totalitarianism and for the care of his Marines. My belief in democratic socialism is an extrapolation of my father’s action against fascism and his care for those around him. If you can die for your platoon and country, why not live for humanity and our home the Earth?

The questions that I had about his sacrifice, along with my mother’s decision to remarry a World War II veteran who didn’t want to talk about the war, led me to look into their military histories to learn more about these two men.

Later in my life I tried to find Marines from my biological father’s unit and went to the Iwo Jima Memorial when a reunion was in Washington, D.C. Approaching two older men at the monument, I suddenly could not speak. They waited for me to talk, told me their stories, and suggested that I get in touch with my father’s division. They had both been wounded on Iwo Jima and were evacuated to a hospital ship. All they could think of was crawling out of bed, jumping over the side of the ship, and getting back to their comrades. But their wounds overwhelmed their ability to get back to their buddies. That intense comradeship or solidarity came with a high price on Iwo Jima. The causalities (wounded and dead) for the combat arms were in the 90 percent range. Of the ten officers in my father’s company seven were killed and the rest wounded.

Eventually, at another reunion event, I was able to meet and bond with the Marines in my father’s company and see the cohesion, tenderness, and strife of military relationships. I got to meet the company commander who saw my father’s actions and put my father in for the Navy Cross. A sergeant sent me a beautiful letter about my father and it was clear he was there since he had gotten shot in the neck in that attack. An old commander hugged an enlisted comrade, told him that he loved him, but asked him not to swear. Not swearing in the military is unheard of. The pain of the battle memories was seen when one of the veterans was not able to watch World War II documentaries – it was just too upsetting. At another convention there was a story of an Iwo Jima veteran in his 80s who tried to commit suicide because of the nightmares he had been having for decades. A trip to Iwo Jima with veterans helped him work through his nightmares. These stories and others have helped me understand and bond with Iwo Jima veterans.

During the Vietnam War era I became a veteran. The Vietnam War was difficult for me in that the war made no political sense. One would not support the U.S. intervention if you believed in the supposed American value of political self-determination through elections. But in my mental confusion I felt I had to become an officer like my fathers and I enlisted. However, soon after I received orders to go to Vietnam I learned that I was not required to serve because I was a sole surviving son.

My time in the Army did not influence me as much as my fathers did. My biological father’s sacrifice inspired my belief in democratic socialism, and my adopted father’s career as a college professor led to my passion for analysis. My biological father gave me the middle name of Francis. Saint Francis was the patron saint of nature, the poor, and nonviolence — and only now am I seeing what that might mean.

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