Veterans’ Day: A Memorial to My Father

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Dad on the Far Right

My father, Exequiel Liwag, was not a man who liked to call attention to himself. For example, it was not until we were going through his personal items after he died that we found out that he had won the Bronze Star for Valor during World War II. But that was how he was: unassuming.

He loved thrift stores, even though he could afford to wear better, he didn’t really see the point. He loved his 1966 Ford Falcon. That was his baby. He adored his grandchildren, and when he found out that he had pancreatic cancer, the one thing that he said that he regretted was that he wouldn’t be around to see them grow up. He loved to work in his garden, and he used his machete from the war to hack away at the weeds, squatting down on his haunches like a native, doing battle with crab grass and weeds. And he loved to fish. He would go off at night and fish off the old Harrison’s pier, the wooden one before the hurricane washed it away. (He would hate the new one, all rebuilt and yuppie with bright lights and a cafe.)

My dad, like many Filipino men of his generation, first served in the Philippine guerrilla army before joining the U.S. Navy. However, the difference is that he lied about his age. He was barely 17 when he joined the Navy, and he had already seen combat in the jungles of the Philippines. His family had hidden in the caves for safety from the Japanese, and his mother lost the youngest children in the family, twin babies, because of the harsh conditions and a lack of food. My dad joined the Navy so that he could send money back to his family, something he did for many years after the war was long over, which enabled his brothers and sister to come to the states to get educations and better lives.

He also served during the Korean conflict—never really called a war, and then he had a breather during which he had extended shore duty, heading the household staffs for several admirals, which is how I came to attend public school in London. While he was still on Navy ships, my dad slipped on an icy gangplank while disembarking and injured his back, an injury that caused him back pain for the rest of his life.

He retired from the Navy after putting in his 20 years, and he tried to stay on dry land, but it wasn’t for him, so he joined the merchant marines, which is how he came to be in the middle of yet another war: the Viet Nam war. During this conflict his ship took on heavy fire, and we received word that his ship was badly damaged. For a while, we did not know his fate because, of course, the world was not wired the way that it is today, and it took much longer to get news.

Luckily, he was not hurt, and he was just transferred to another ship. During Viet Nam, his tours were six to nine months at a time, and he was always in harms’ way.

I don’t ever remember him complaining. I just remember his body slowly curving more and more over the years. His left hand atrophied as the muscle wore away, and his back always ached. But he stayed at sea until he couldn’t go any more.

My father came from a country thousands of miles away. His risked his life time and time again, first for his family in the Philippines, and later for his new country and his family in the United States. He never questioned whether or not he was doing the right thing. He believed that his country, the United States of America was the greatest country in the world. He sang the national anthem off-key, but he sang it proudly. He saluted his flag, and he believed in his country.

There were times when his country let him down. When we tried to live in the Philippines after he retired, he wasn’t allowed the same benefits as other retirees. I was too young to remember why, but I remember that it happened, and that my parents were upset by this. I remember, too, that he was upset when he found out that the money that he had been paying into survivor benefits for my mother wasn’t going to amount to very much and that he could have been paying that money into an interest-bearing account that would have yielded much more. But he had invested into the U.S. Government, never thinking for one minute that his government would not protect him and my mother.

When my father died, he was entitled to a veteran’s funeral: a flag-draped casket and a 21-gun salute. We requested that “Taps” be played. Actually, I made that request. I had no idea that unless you were some kind of officer of rank, you didn’t actually get a bugle player; you got a cassette tape version of “Taps,” which, I suppose, is better than nothing. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful in any way. It was just a shock to the system to hear a tinny cassette and not a proud bugle.

Pretty much everything I learned about honor and duty I learned from my father. He worked hard all of his life, and he devoted a large part of that life to this country. He came from a small country thousands of miles away, just a boy really, and he gave this country whatever it asked of him.

I once said that if had to vote for only one issue in this past election, it would be for veterans’ rights, and I stand by that. How a country treats the men and women who serve it and die for it is a direct reflection of how that country feels about its citizenry as a whole, for its veterans represent its citizens. Our veterans go to war to protect our freedoms. They go to war so that the rest of us do not have to. They go to war so that we can say what we want whenever we want. They got to war so that I have the freedom to express myself in this blog. They go to war so that we can vote for whichever candidate we choose in a free election process. How we treat them when they come home should be as the true heroes that they are.

Our veterans should not have to fight for medical treatment. Our veterans should not have to fight for benefits. Our veterans should not be living on the street. Our veterans should never, ever be called names or be made to feel ashamed for doing what their country asked of them.

My father was a veteran. I am incredibly proud of him for the service that he gave to this country. That is only one reason that I am proud of him, but it is one of the more important ones. I still miss him terribly. But on this day, he, like thousands and thousands of others, deserves our support, our thanks, our recognition, and our undying respect.

As always, more later. Peace.

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