(Editor’s Note—In the following story, Belinda Stout, a music teacher at Richards School in Newport, recalls the impact the Vietnam War death of her Father had on her when she was 5-years old and the decades that followed. Belinda was the featured speaker Monday at the Memorial Day service on the Newport Common. Her speech is presented here, in its entirety.)
Today is originally known as “Decoration Day” because people would decorate graves with flowers and flags after the Civil War ended in the spring of 1865. The Civil War claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history and required the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries.
By the late 1860s, Americans in various communities had begun holding springtime tributes to these countless fallen soldiers by decorating their graves and reciting prayers.
Now, known as Memorial Day, it is for remembering the people who died while serving in the country's armed forces... the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard.
For many families Memorial Day is … every day… even before their loved one died.
I remember thinking of my Dad every day he was away in the service…waiting with anticipation for the day he would come home again…
I remember him handing me his homecoming gift of a stuffed toy horse that I still have today, 52 years later, even though it is very worn and I’ve lost the ears...
I remember when we were together again, enviously wanting his attention while all my older cousins played, chasing him around my grandmother’s yard and up the big old apple tree. (I wasn’t fast enough to even try).
I remember at 5-years old repeatedly asking my mother when he would be coming home again. She would say, “He’ll be home for your birthday in August.” I couldn’t wait.
But then, I remember a day in June that same year when two men in uniform visited us, and our neighbor took my little sister and I to her house next door. I remember her trying to explain to me why my mother was so sad, then mom trying to explain it to me later...
A week later, I remember lots of people helping us when my youngest sister was born. Then they helped pack us up and move us from Colorado to Rhode Island where my mother relocated us so we could grow up surrounded by my father’s family and a community who remembered him well.
My father had five older brothers who had all been in different branches of the armed forces. They and their families took us under their loving wings.
I remember my extended family and new friends sharing memories of my dad whenever they had the chance all through my childhood.
I learned he was a hockey and baseball player, a golfer, that he played the accordion, sang, tap danced, and liked his eggs over easy on toast.
I remember still not understanding that he was gone for good while my cousins cried at the funeral.
Because of the closed casket, five years later I remember that every day after school I would run to the TV to watch the Vietnam POWs coming home. Captain Edward Lapierre, pilot of an F-4C Phantom II, while enemy shot down attacking an enemy storage complex near Truc Giang in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam ground fire. The plane crashed. There were no survivors. And my 10-year-old childlike “hopes” that there might have been … saw no POW belonging to us come home.
I remember when I was 12-years old finding a letter he wrote to my Mom a day before he died, filled with his hopes and plans for our future.
At that time, I remember, as the realization hit me, finally feeling all the emotions of loss, abandonment, grief, anger, and sadness...
I remember dreaming about him, long walks in the woods “talking” to him and to God about him.
I remember all the times in life that I wished he was here to share with us successes and failures, graduations, broken hearts, weddings, births of his daughter, grandchildren and great-grandson.
I even remember a time of anger and confusion and of not wanting to remember.
One of my older cousins visited Vietnam and found where my Dad’s plane went down. He sent us a picture. Other friends sent me rubbings of his name from the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. to add to my own rubbing.
So much kindness, compassion and thoughtfulness. So many memorials through the years, bridge dedication, services … and so much loneliness only a father could fill. When I look at my husband, Jeff, I am grateful for my own children being able to share the love and life of their Father.
This is only one person’s, one family’s, loss of one individual. Many of you have your own stories and memories of loss. There have been more than 1.1 million Americans killed in American Wars. And that is only one country’s loss. At least 108 million people were killed in wars in the 20th Century. Estimates for the total number killed in wars throughout all of human history range from 150 million to 1 billion.
My hope is that one day our world will live in total peace… that our children will live in a world where servicemen and women all over the planet have a job needing only to serve and protect, to rescue, to build bridges between nations and their divided groups, to provide humanitarian aid for our own countries, as well as helping each others’, rather than fighting against each other in any war…. All people living in peace and tranquility together.
I’d like to close with the last stanza of the famous poem by Francis Miles Finch, about the opposing sides of the Civil War,
“The Blue And The Gray”:
No more shall the war cry sever,
Or the winding rivers be red;
They banish our anger forever
When they laurel the graves of our dead!
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment-day,
Love and tears for the Blue,
Tears and love for the Gray.
“Thank you all for your sacrifice of time away from your loved ones in order to keep us safe and sound… and thank you for your service to our country.”