My grandfather, Martin Sanchez, served three tours of duty in the Vietnam War. As a child, I didn’t have a full concept of what that meant, and I often asked him questions. When he would discuss his time in Vietnam with me, his eyes would glass over, as if he was simultaneously with me but also somewhere else. And he was somewhere else. He was back in the jungles, trudging behind his friends through the muddy fields or enjoying a smoke break in the sweltering heat. My questions had thrown open the doors to his past and brought those ghosts to his present.
Ignorant to this, I asked him lots of questions, the most frequent one was why he enlisted. I knew enough about the war at that time to know that many young men were being drafted. Not my grandfather. He enlisted.
That boggled my young mind. It seemed crazy to me, at least from my childish perspective. I couldn’t understand why anyone would leave the safety of their home and their family to fight a war in another country.
His answer rarely satisfied me. He would look at me, smile, and say that “He had to.”
This confused me. Did his parents make him go? Did my grandmother encourage his enlistment? Did he go because all his friends were going?
Whenever I asked him why, he simply smiled and said one day I would understand.
I hated being told those words by any adult. It made me feel stupid, as if my childish brain was incapable of handling whatever information the adult kept just out of my reach. I wanted to know more, but my grandfather realized he couldn’t provide an answer that would satisfy me.
And the stories he sometimes told didn’t help much either.
In one story, he was trapped in a foxhole with his squad. A firefight ensued all night. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t eat. He couldn’t sleep. All he could do was fight–to stay alive and to make sure none of his buddies died.
I also remember a story where he and his friends spent the night in an abandoned structure of some kind, tracked by their enemy and seeking shelter where it could be found. There was also a time when a grenade was tossed in his direction. I’m uncertain how he survived (to be honest, I stopped listening because the thought of my grandfather in danger really made me uneasy), but he made it out alive.
In all the stories I’ve heard over the years, not once did his face betray his emotions. There was neither fear nor regret.
He was proud. After all, it was something he just had do.
As an adult, I understand my grandfather more than ever. Fighting for his country was his calling. It’s what made him the man he is today. He served the United States without thinking about his personal well being. He did it because he loves his country. He did it because he is a man of principle and a patriot, and he lived his life following those very basic tenets.
And by being that patriot, that man who stood up when so many others ran, he taught me a great deal about honor, about loyalty, and about what it meant to truly be a man.
It had nothing to do with laying waste to an enemy or with fighting tooth and nail for survival. That was only in the movies.
Being a man meant doing what needed to be done. It meant embracing your fear, looking it square in the face and never once backing down. Being a man wasn’t something you could run from. Being a man meant you sometimes had to stand your ground, no matter what.
So, today, I thank my grandfather for being a man, for doing what he had to do for his family and his country.
And I want to thank the other veterans, the other men and women who proudly serve this country. Like my grandfather, they are all doing what they have to do. They are heroes in a world where true heroes are few and far between, and they represent the best of what this country has to offer!