Celebrating life, moving past the pain

Today, my family celebrated a life … while reliving the painful past. In celebrating what would have been my dads 84th birthday, a glimpse of the inevitable pain that accompanies his celebration always comes back.

My dad was a patriot, a hero, but most of all, he was the man that shaped me into the man I am today … and in the process, gave his life for his family, his country and for everyone who couldn’t or wouldn’t.

He was a great man in my eyes. I could tell stories of how he was when I was a child growing up, but I would rather keep those wonderful memories to myself.

In his professional life, he was a lifetime soldier up until his death Sept. 22, 1968. Today, his name is enshrined in the National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, Georgia, as one of only 325 Infantry and Special Forces soldiers since 1941 to be awarded the most prestigious combat badge — the Combat Infantryman’s Badge.

It is one of the least awarded combat badges and is considered one of the most prestigious, along with the Medal of Honor.

I felt great pride in being able to cover the unveiling of the exhibit at the National Infantry Museum Oct. 23, 2012 as a reporter.

My dad was a diminutive man that stood 5-foot 8-inches and weighed 125 pounds on a good day, but he withstood the tests of war and was awarded two Bronze Star Medals, each with the V-Device (for Valor), “escaped capture” from the Chinese Communist Forces in Korea, (the newspaper article read) ultimately linking up with British Forces where he walked the frozen ground until his “feet gave out” and fought through the pain of being wounded in action, earning the Purple Heart Medal for combat related wounds — six times in his career — most of which our family didn’t know about until his death.

But, through that, above all he was a family man, a devoted husband, dad, brother and uncle — a man that loved to tease you and make you laugh — no wonder my mother never remarried or dated, and to this day has never given a thought to any other man in her life other than him. She was 36 when he died and is now 83.

He always found a way to shine.

To think I had him for the first 11 years of my life is a good reason to celebrate his life. I still remember him telling me why I couldn’t move up to play on an older baseball team because I was on the cusp of the age group. He said, “You can’t move up to the Phillies because I need you to play for me.” Yes, he was also my baseball coach and I played every position. He was also my football coach — and my life coach.

In celebrating his life though, it also brings about personal pain … a pain, I believe, is time to rid myself of through this writing and pain I have carried since 1968.

It’s not easy writing about the day we were notified my dad was killed in Vietnam, because in some way, as an 11 year old and the “man of the family” in his absence,  I chose the wrong time to “pull a joke” on my mother, which I live with to today.

I was outside playing basketball with friends when the car carrying the Chaplain and the Survivors Assistance Officer pulled up to the house next door. I ran inside to tell my mom there was a car outside the house with Army guys in uniform. Even at 11, I knew it would scare her and then I would just tell her I was joking. After all, I did get my joking nature from my dad.

Little did I realize they went to the wrong house. It hit me when they backed the car up and started up our driveway. I never felt more pain or guilt to that point than I did that day — but I have carried it all these years in my conscience.

I have had a lot of success in my life, which I attribute to the teachings and character of my mom and dad. I have learned so much through their life lessons, trials and tribulations.

So, today, we are celebrating his life and I am moving past the guilt and doing as he did his entire life … doing what he would want me to finally do — find a way to shine — which I hope everyone will find a way to do at some point in their life — it’s never too late.

In memory of my dad, First Sgt. William G. Peeler, April 5, 1932 – September 22, 1968.