"I was born to be a Navy wife," Pam says readily. "When I was a kid, I used to watch the old movies. I always pictured me standing on the dock. It doesn't matter where you live, just as long as your family is happy." Pam knew her calling.
Did the young Stalin and Mao sense their destinies to murder millions of people in the service of their egomaniacal cults of communism? Did Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il-sung, Pol Pot, or Nicolae Ceaucescu picture himself committing genocide and imprisoning his countrymen while much of the rest of the world prospered?
Pam asked me to tell her story. She said, "Maybe it can help people." I tell it not as a paean to the cruel business of war, but with the understanding that freedom never fails. And how American resistance to the bane of communism in the 20th century called upon a girl from Queens to make the ultimate sacrifice for freedom, and to keep on dancing still.
Pam's grandfather was born into a Jewish family in Russia in the 1880s and brought to Pennsylvania as a child. His youngest daughter, Pam's mother, had a flair for performance. She was a roller-skate dancer who traveled the country with the "Skating Vanities." Pam got her love of dancing from her mother. Pam's father, Ron, was a Navy ensign during World War II.
In April 1968, when Pam walked into the dance at the Enlisted Men's Club at St. Alban's Navy Hospital in Queens, Ron whistled so loudly that the room full of sailors hushed for a moment. He let it be known before the end of the evening that she was with him. In August, they ran to the northern border, eloping to Yonkers. When Ron got a raise that November, they had a regular wedding.
Ron was born in Shelby, Ohio in 1942. He enlisted as a Naval hospital corpsman in 1961. Ron already had three Purple Hearts when he met Pam. He used to say, "With my medals and 50 cents I'll buy you a coffee." He had a box of memorabilia hidden away. It contained records of six Good Conducts, two Meritorious Commendations, and the Three Purple Hearts. Pam found it after he died in 1992.
The box contained an article from the 6/23/1967 Cleveland Plain Dealer, entitled "No Peace, Just Death at Con Thien." Ron served as a hospital corpsmen during the fierce battle on the "Hill of Angels," just one mile south of the DMZ. The article stated: "Con Thien is the key base in the Marine's and Vietnamese attempt to curtail infiltration from North Vietnam. ... The flames silhouetted them [hospital corpsmen] as they ran up and down the airstrip carrying out their dead and wounded." Ron was pictured and quoted: "At one point two of them headed towards us carrying wires and satchels. Luckily my buddy saw them in time and cut them down before they reached us."
Ron also served at Gio Linh, where medical records indicate he was "wounded twice under mortar fire." Con Thien and the region of Gio Linh were heavily sprayed with Agent Orange.
During his 24-year marriage to Pam, Ron rarely spoke about Vietnam. If the subject came up, Ron would leave the room. He slept with a knife under their bed for the rest of his life, and Pam tried to arrange things so that he could see who was in the room. Once Ron's brother surprised him, and ended up passing out in a chokehold.
The memories became heavier with the passing years. He confessed to Pam, "It was terrible over there. You give a kid a candy and he gives you back a grenade." Ron couldn't understand the disloyalty of the Vietnamese. "They would turn on you for nothing."
Ron was torn up by the disrespect of the American people when he came home. He would call himself "Kathy's Clown." Through the 1980s Ron had a high white blood count that wouldn't come down; he suffered a brain stem stroke in 1988. But he continued to serve as a hospital corpsman, retiring in 1989 as an E9 master chief.
In the early 1970s, Pam was told that she was unable to have children, and they adopted Chad in 1973. A few years later Pam had corrective surgery, and against the odds, she became pregnant. Dawn Michele was born 1/11/1977. And then Sean Christopher was born 7/2/1978. "Dawn was smart as a whip. She would add up her own points on her report card in case the teacher made a mistake. Sean was a good baby; he cooed himself to sleep. Sean cared about people." Pam recalled the time he made her stop the car so he could give a box of Girl Scout cookies to a homeless person. "Dawn and Sean were very close -- just great, great kids."
But Chad would ask Pam, "Why are Dawn and Sean always sick?" Sean had severe asthma from eighteen months of age. Even as a baby he lay on the floor panting, trying to breathe. As an infant, Dawn had skin rashes and severe skin eruptions that never fully healed. As a teenager, she would come home from school and have to go to bed.
Pam took her children to doctors constantly. But when she discovered that her 20-year-old daughter had endometriosis, Pam starting thinking, "Something is poisoning my kids."
Big sister was there to greet her baby brother when he appeared upon this earth, but her adventuresome brother was the first of them in heaven. On May 24, 1998, Sean was on a camping trip in Kentucky when he became unable to breathe. The death certificate read "respiratory failure with cardiac arrest." On November 10, 1999, Dawn, who had been feeling worse and worse despite numerous trips to the emergency room, lay down on her aunt's couch and never got up. Eighteen months apart in death from her brother, as she had been in life. Cause of death: unknown.
It was not until after their deaths that Pam became convinced that Agent Orange had taken her children's lives. She blamed herself -- maybe if she had realized it earlier... Unable to work or think clearly, she withdrew from the world. She went through a bankruptcy in 2005 and lost her house in Ohio to a short sale. But Pam still loves the Navy -- "The best people I ever knew." Pam wears the image of Dawn and Sean around her neck.
In 2011, Pam started a new life in a beach town in South Carolina, where she dances the shag at a little studio by the sea.
The veterans of Vietnam are going through another great betrayal. The first occurred when an ungrateful nation spit on them. Today they watch the freedoms they fought for disappear in America. They watch their commander-in-chief -- a child of Marxism who was taught at elite universities to blame America by the very people who especially despised Vietnam veterans -- use the military as a whipping boy and become a dictator himself.
Before their sacrifice slips from memory: to the people of Russia, to the post-Communist states of Eastern Europe, to people all over the world, thank Americans for believing that all people are created equal and free. Thank the United States military for fighting for you. Thank the guy from Ohio who rushed into the most dangerous spot on earth over and over to rescue the rescuers. And above all, thank Pam.
Deborah C. Tyler is a clinical psychologist who works with veterans. She writes for AT and other outlets about humanist influences in the field of psychology. She can be reached through www.intylergence.com.