The Essay Part Three
Mattie paced around their living room, and Mac just looked at her teenager and smiled while feeding Mackenzie her oatmeal. "Mom, Uncle AJ is late!"
"Honey he isn't late, he still has ten minutes. Will you stop fidgeting, it isn't like you haven't been around AJ before."
"It is different this time, I can't explain it. I am asking him to reach into his past and talk about probably some of the most painful experiences of his life."
"Mattie, if AJ felt like he couldn't deal with talking about it, then I am sure that he would have never agreed to helping you out with this project. Now come here and let me take a look at you."
Mattie walked to where her adoptive mother was feeding her little sister. "You look very nice."
"Do you know why Uncle AJ wanted me to dress up?"
"Oh, honey, I don't know." Just then there was a knock on the door. Mac stood up and answered it. "Hi AJ. Thank you so much for doing this for Mattie."
"Not a problem Mac. I will have Mattie home before 2300."
"Okay." She heard Mackenzie start babbling in the kitchen and Sergei was egging her on.
"Mattie, AJ is here, you better get a move on young lady." Mattie came from the kitchen with a her laptop and a tap recorder.
"I'll see you in a little bit. Behavior for Uncle AJ or else."
"I know Mom, I know." Mattie walked out and hopped into AJ's SUV with Damnit in the backseat. "Uncle AJ, where are we going?"
"We are going out to eat." He said smiling at her.
AJ drove down the busy streets of DC and pulled up to a place that was very familiar to Mattie, the memorial. She watched him walk up to a panel and put his hand on a familiar name, much like her father always did when he was visiting her grandfather. Mattie left him for a moment and found the familiar panel and put traced over her grandfather's name.
"Hi Grandpa." She said quietly. "I know I am not your real granddaughter, but Dad always told me it wasn't blood that makes a family, it's love. He swears that you would love me, and that me and you would have gotten along great.
You know Gramps, Dad is missing, and I know that you want him to be with you again, but honestly I hope that isn't the case. I don't know what I would do without Dad. Mom says though that you are looking out for him, and thank you for that."
AJ came up behind her and put his hand on her shoulder. "You know, you found that panel real quick, have you come here often."
"Don't tell Mom, but after NJROTC practice, sometimes instead of going straight home, I come here and talk to Gramps. It makes me feel closer to Dad." She said with a small smile.
AJ pulled a picnic basked out of the car and they walked Damnit around the wall before leashing him to a tree. That sat down and started idling chatting. Finally AJ looked at her, "Didn't you need to talk to me about what happened to all those men on that wall over there?"
"I didn't know how to bring up the worst years of your life."
AJ smiled at her. "You just hit the heart of it Mattie, those were the worst years of my life. Sometimes though it helps to talk about the things that we saw over there, the napalm burning off the skin of a man right next to you, finding the bodies of women and children who were murdered by the Viet Cong, it is all memories that many of us keep buried deep inside."
"How do you deal?"
"Sometimes we don't. But, if we don't talk about those times, then it is doomed to happen again. What do you need to know young lady?"
"When did you join, or how did you feel about this war."
"I joined the United States Navy in 1968. When Richard Nixon was talking about what you could do for your country, I thought, hey I could do that." AJ smiled at his naïve younger self. "I went off to boot camp in March, and by December I was part of an elite group called the SEALs. We were sent on the missions that no one wanted to take, and believe me Mattie, nobody wanted to take those missions." AJ sighed off into the sunset, twirling a weed in his hand.
"Were you ever scared?"
"All the damn time. I wrote letters home constantly telling my mother what I wanted to happen just incase. I think your dad actually wrote one for each of you." AJ stated. At his question, Mattie nodded her head.
"I haven't read it yet." Mattie answered. "I won't read it until I know his fate."
"You are stubborn like your father." AJ said to her. "Go ahead, ask me anything."
"I rather you just tell me about life over there, what was it like, did anything good happen, did you make any friends, what do you regret?"
AJ looked at the younger girl and smiled at her. "Life over there wasn't like anything I have experienced before. There was monsoon season, and it seemed like that it was the only time I was in the damn country. You couldn't tell friend from enemy. Matts, it was a dirty war."
The sun started setting more, and she saw someone standing at the panel that held her grandfather's name. "Al, over here."
An Asian man looked over and waived. He came walking up with a woman who was holding a child. "Admiral, it is very good to see you. Who is your friend?"
"This is Mattie Rabb. She is doing a project on Vietnam. I asked you here because I was wondering if I could tell Ms. Rabb our story, it is definitely on the lighter side."
"It would be my honor to help out with this project. Admiral, let me introduce you to my son, William Chegwidden Wen."
"You named him after me? Why did you do that?"
"You saved my life and my mother's life. For that, I owe you." He answered him. "Ms. Rabb, I am sorry, let me introduce myself, Albert Chegwidden Wen. The Admiral save my mother's life. Sir, I have to go now. I need to get Will inside."
"It is good to see you again Al. I will call you again next week."
"I look forward to it Admiral."
Mattie watched the small family walk away interlocking hands. "Uncle AJ, who was that?"
"Probably one of the small miracles that came out of that damn country. This is going to be your article." AJ sighed and the stars started coming out. He took off his jacket and handed it to Mattie. She flipped on her recorder. By the time that AJ got finished telling her his story, she sat there awestruck.
"I never knew."
"No one ever did honey. That is why it is so important that these stories get told. Now I better get you home before your marine mom sends a unit out to find us." He packed up their picnic dinner and they head to the car.
King George, VA
"Mattie are you dressed for the presentations today?" Mac called from downstairs.
"Yeah, NJROTC has to wear our uniforms. Are you going to be there today?"
"Yep. The JAG crew was given off by Admiral Jonas, so we were able to attend. Uncle Bud is going to be there, Uncle AJ, Chaplain Turner, Admiral Boone. You are going to know a lot of brass on the stage Matts. Are you nervous?"
"Yes." Mattie said coming down the hall wearing her uniform. Mac started pulling Mattie's hair back into a tight bun. "Why do I have to be there an hour early?"
"Because your instructors thought it would be a good idea, and it is your job," Mac said simply."
"Are you ready to go sweetie?" Mac asked picking up Mackenzie carrier.
Mac loaded her family into the Lexus.
Mac sat in the section that was reserved for the military personal coming to the event. She held Mackenzie in her lap and saw the rest of the JAG family walking up.
"Do you think Mattie is ready for this ma'am?" Jen piped up.
"She should be ready, she was practicing all night in her room." Sergei said.
The students began filing in and took their seats in the auditorium. Dr. Porter took the stage and addressed the students. "Good morning!" She addressed into the microphone.
The students weren't paying attention to her. She cleared her throat, "I said good morning," she stated with a little bit more authority. The students all replied good morning is staggered unison. "We have a special presentation today. I expect everyone up here to listen to what these men and women have to tell you, many of them have experienced so much more than you will experience. More importantly, many of them could kill you if they wanted to," she said joking with them. Many of the students laughed at that. "I expect best behavior, or you will have to deal with me afterward. I want you all to stand for the presentation of the colors, the pledge of allegiance, and the national anthem." The color guard came out and put up the flags and the ceremony began.
"Now, I want to introduce your award winning drill team, and your peers: Cadet Rabb, Cadet Moore, Cadet Willis, Cadet Chen, and Cadet Jackson."
Mattie and her team came out with her instructor giving them the drill calls. At the end of their routine, Mattie stepped forward and quickly spun the rifle, threw it in the air, and caught it with ease behind her back. Mac smiled at her daughter. It took Mac several attempts to teach her that trick.
The principal came back out on stage and stood behind the podium. "Ladies and gentlemen, your drill team." She applauded and so did the auditorium. "I want to introduce you to someone. This young lady has walked our halls for but only a short time, but she has quickly become part of our family, she conducts herself with pride and dignity, and most of you know her as the girl who can do neat tricks with the rifles, put your hands together for the master of ceremonies, Mathilda Rabb."
Mattie stepped back out on the stage and waved to her mom. Mac smiled and waved back.
She stepped up to the podium. "Ladies and gentlemen, teachers, esteemed faculty and staff, members of the armed forces, I want to take this moment to thank each and everyone of you. You help shape our minds and you challenge us in ways we didn't even think was possible." She stepped back and applauded them, and caught sight of Mackenzie applauding also.
"As many of you know, this assembly is being held for us to honor our Veterans, but lets not forget the men and women serving our country right now, and lets take a minute of silent to ask the higher powers to protect them." Mattie stepped back and went into parade rest for a moment, and then continued on.
"A few months ago, I was told that I had to write an essay on what a hero is. Now, I really don't know what qualifies a hero to everyone out there, but I knew exactly who I was going to write about, which leads me up to being up here in front of you guys. I wrote my paper on the common guy, my father, who is part of the military. These men are our heroes who protect us, and I have no greater pleasure than introducing them today."
The men filed out on stage. AJ and Tom gave her a quick wink and Bud smiled at her. "Starting from left to right, there is retired Admiral Albert Jethro Chegwidden, Admiral Thomas Boone, Lieutenant Commander Bud Roberts, Chaplain Turner, Commander Jack Keeter, and Major Netterville. These men are here to tell their stories about what happened to them overseas, and to answer any questions you may have at the end. First up, we have Un – Lieutenant Commander Bud Roberts." Mattie stepped away from the podium and Bud smiled at her.
"When your principle, Dr. Porter, called to ask if I could come and talk, I didn't think I would be able to. I wouldn't know what to say to a bunch of high schoolers, imagine a lawyer with nothing to say." Bud said, eliciting chuckles from the JAG crew. "But thinking over it, I realized there is one thing I could teach you guys, it is perseverance.
"I was assigned to work as a JAG – Judge Advocate General – on the USS Seahawk. It was supposed to be a fairly safe assignment, but you never know when life is going to throw you into the wrong direction. While in Afghanistan, I was sent on a goodwill mission, and while trying to save a child from a landmine, I lost my leg." Bud came out from behind the podium and showed the audience his titanium leg. A couple of the kids gasped at it.
"I came here because I thought that life was over, but then with a good swift kick in the pants, some friends showed me that I had a life. The physical therapy that I endured for months was torture, and there were times that I thought that I would give up. But I didn't. I earned the right to continue serving this country that I love, and I persevered over some great odds." Bud looked at Mattie and gave her a hug. "Thanks Matts, I needed to teach these kids something." He whispered to her.
"No problem Uncle Bud." She went back up to the podium and started to speak. "Thank you Commander Roberts. The next man is someone who keeps you on your toes, Commander Jack Keeter."
Jack walked up to the podium, "Hey Mattie, do you think your mom will go on a date with me?"
Mac stood up from her place, "Not if your life depended on it Jack." The audience started laughing. From out of nowhere a kid yelled, "Hey Mattie, your mom is hot!"
Jack laughed. "Okay boys and girls, I am Commander Jack Keeter. I fly F-14s for a living. I have the need for speed. I am currently stationed on the USS Seahawk where I do recon missions over Afghanistan searching for Bin Laden. But the story I am going to tell you is probably nothing like Commander Roberts' story.
"I was captured by Iranian officials one day. I was flying a stealth, and there were some problems. I was able to land the stealth, but I kept it in stealth mode. Mattie's parents, Commander Rabb and Colonel Mackenzie came in and saved my hide! The message I am going to preach to you guys is teamwork. You have to be a team, and depend on other people, or else, there is nothing left. Mattie's dad ended up flying the train back to the carrier, and the secrets of our technology was saved by none other than the three stooges." Keeter laughed and so did he admirals. "I owe my life to those guys. Remember, teamwork."
Keeter high fived Mattie and sat back down. Mattie walked back up to the podium, "The next man I would like to introduce you to is Chaplain Turner." The small man walked slowly up to the podium.
"As most of you can figure, I am a pastor. My job was to preach to the men and women over in Vietnam. I brought them messages of peace when there was none to be found. This is the message I want to bring to you. We are fighting to bring the world to peace, you guy are the next generation, and peace may be able to begin with you. I am going to tell you one story though.
"I was on my way to a little village in Cambodia. Out of nowhere, Charlie began to advance on the small convoy that was with me. I said a prayer and we drove through. There was a spray of bullets everywhere. When we finally got to the village, no one in the convoy was hurt. It was like the hand of God was protecting us. If you could have seen the jeeps, it looked like swiss cheese. I count it as a miracle. Remember young ones, peace begins with you."
Mattie helped him back to his seat and he gave her a grateful squeeze. She walked confidently back to the podium. "Admiral Thomas Boone is perhaps one of the most stubborn men I know, and trust me, I know a lot of stubborn people. Try living with one parent in the Navy and the other one in the Marines!" Mattie said smiling. That caused a chuckle out of everyone. "On a more serious note though, Admiral Boone is one of the most loyal people I know, so let us put our hands together for him."
Mattie stepped aside and he took his place at the podium. "Thank you Mattie for that very nice introduction. Much like Commander Keeter, I owe Mattie's father my life, he landed our disabled aircraft on the deck of a carrier in the middle of the night.
Now to most people, that would be no big deal. He was trained in it. But what was different with Commander Rabb was that he was diagnosed with night blindness, I was unconscious and wouldn't survive a punch out, and he hadn't flow in five years. But that man refused to let me die. I guess if everyone else is going to teach you younguns a lesson, so will I. The lesson today from me is courage.
"It was the middle of the war, 1969. I was flying missions off the Ticonderoga with a very talented pilot, Lt. Harm Rabb Sr. He was Hammer to his friends, and bunch of other younger pilots. During that summer we were flying recon missions over Cambodia providing cover to our ground troops when they needed it, and gathering intelligence.
"On one mission we flew, we took heavy ground fire. I was the first one to get hit, Alpha was the second one to get hit, and Hammer, refusing to leave us was the third to get hit. We decided that we didn't have enough fuel to make it back to the carrier, so we put our planes in the direction were we saw the gunfire and ejected.
"Hammer ended up getting tangled in the trees and had to play dead. The Viet Cong bought it and continued to march towards our ground troops. When they had advanced forward a little, Hammer motioned for the six of us on the ground to start taking them out. The six of us were able to take out 20 enemy soldiers.
"Hammer ended up cutting himself out of the tree, and we made our way to the ground troops were we were evacuated back to the Ticonderoga. Turns out that we took out about 50 enemy soldiers that were advancing on our ground troops To this day, I still haven't figured out if it was dumb luck or if it was a higher power that helped us out that day, but there is one thing I do know, we showed courage in the line of fire and refused to back down.
"You kids nowadays have to use common sense and courage more than ever. Have the common sense to pick and choose your battles, and have the courage to fight for what you believe in. Thank you for inviting me here today. Hopefully I have been able to inspire you all today." Admiral Boone did a quick double take at Mattie and whispered to her. "You know kiddo, your grandfather would have loved you."
"Thanks Admiral." She said to him. Mattie smiled at him, and took her place at the podium. "The next speaker is like an uncle to me, well most of these men are. Admiral AJ Chegwidden is the retired Judge Advocate General and a good friend of my family. He is a Navy SEAL and could scare the dickens into anyone. Admiral Chegwidden?"
AJ came to the podium. "Thank you Cadet Rabb. Just like everyone up here on stage, I know her father. I was honored by Mattie when she asked me to tell her about my experiences in Vietnam. It let me know that we haven't forgotten that war that has taken place almost 30 years ago. Tom, I owe you my life. I was one of those men on the ground in Cambodia. I remember looking up and seeing your plane fly over into the trees and then seeing you guys eject. Thank you, I always wondered who those men were.
"I am here to tell you guys about hope. Even in war, you can find hope. I was helping evacuate some refugees when I came across a very pregnant, scared 17 year old. I was ushering her through the fields to get her to the helo. Suddenly her water broke. I didn't know what to do, but she was in so much pain, she couldn't continue moving. In that dirty field, I helped deliver a bouncing baby boy.
"I never knew what happened to the mother and child. We got on the helo, and all I could do was sit there and hold the baby. That little baby gave me hope in a time where it was scarce. All we ever saw was death. We were trained to kill the gooks, but looking at her face, I realized that we were all human. That little baby helped me through the rest of the war, and I never even got to say thank you.
"In the summer of 1980, I received a call from Kim Wen. She had emigrated to the states and only knew my name. She had named her son after me and that is how she was able to remember my name. We kept in touch over the years.
"War is never good, and not much good comes of war. The once beautiful country side was torn to pieces, and Kim lost her home. But she once told me that we gave her hope, the fact that we were helping them fight their war, she knew that we were the good guys.
"Keep the hope alive that one day we will be at peace. Thank you boys and girls." AJ sat down and Mac sat stunned. She never realized that side of AJ. Mattie gave her thanks again, and the presenters answered any questions that the student had.
Mac looked down at her girls and realized the reason why her fiancé was overseas, to ensure a brighter future for the next generation. That is what the heroes of today do, they practice valor quietly and do their jobs accordingly. She mused to herself, "Imagine what the world could be if we all practiced faith, hope, courage, perseverance, and teamwork." She looked at the real life heroes on stage and led the charge in the standing ovation
Here is a nod to all the heroes of the world. Thank you for everything.