A Trip To Vietnam Helped This Son Make Peace With His Dad's Death

May 19, 2017
Originally published on May 19, 2017 7:45 am

Army Sgt. Robert Louis Howard was killed in action in 1969 during the Vietnam War. He was 24, and he left behind his ex-wife Roberta Vincent, and their 4-year-old son, Robert Howard II.

At the time of his dad's death, Robert II didn't quite understand what was happening around him.

"I remember not crying at the funeral," he says. "I thought it was a magic show. Seeing him, and then, when they draped the flag, all of a sudden the casket is closed. I'm like, 'Where did he go?' "

Vincent says it wasn't until a few years later that Robert II understood that his dad was gone.

"I remember you writing a paper about him in third grade, but the paper was written as if he was still here," Vincent says. "So I remember sitting down, talking to you, and you cried, I cried."

Robert II says he felt cheated without his father there.

"It kind of made me angry, especially coming from a small town where everybody knew my father but me," he says.

Vincent told her son she wasn't sure she could help him.

"I could see you struggling, but I didn't know how to help you," she says. "I would envision that God would take me and bring your dad back, because, at that time, you needed him more."

Robert II says as he grew older he blamed a lot of the turmoil he went through on the fact that his father wasn't around.

"As I grew older, drugs were a way for me to escape; and I really didn't care whether I lived or died at that time," he says. "I used to say to myself, 'Well things would be different if you were here.' "

But, he knew what he needed to do to get closure about his father's death after a dream one night.

"This dream was real vivid. There was a whole bunch of bodies on the ground and I was looking for my father's body," Robert II says. "I know he was there, but I couldn't find him. So I think he was trying to wake me up then. And I knew I had to go to Vietnam for me to lay him to rest."

Robert II did go to Vietnam and he took a medallion that has his father's picture etched in gold.

"I carried it around like it was a part of me," he says. "I never took it off. But, when I got to Vietnam, that's when I took off the medallion. And when I took that chain off, I felt a sense of relief. I didn't have to carry him anymore."

Vincent says she knows Robert II's dad is proud of his son.

"You certainly have walked in your dad's footsteps. You honor him daily," she says. "I love you dearly."

Robert II, who now has three sons of his own, says he love his mother, too.

"Thank you for sticking it out with me," he says.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And that music is our cue for StoryCorps, where Americans talk about the events that have shaped their lives. Robert Howard grew up in Norwich, Conn., in the shadow of his father, a larger-than-life character who fought in Vietnam and was killed in action in 1969. When Robert came to StoryCorps with his mother, Roberta Vincent, he spoke about saying goodbye to his dad.

ROBERT HOWARD II: I was 4 at the time. And I remember not crying at the funeral.

ROBERTA VINCENT: I can't imagine that you even knew what was going on.

HOWARD II: I thought it was a magic show.

VINCENT: Really?

HOWARD II: Yeah. Seeing him, and then, when they draped the flag, all of sudden the casket's closed. I'm like, where did he go?

VINCENT: I remember you writing a paper about him in third grade, but the paper was written as if he was still here. So I remember sitting down, talking to you. And you cried. I cried.

HOWARD II: It kind of made me angry, especially coming from a small town where everybody knew my father but me. I just felt cheated.

VINCENT: I could see you were struggling, but I didn't know how to help you. And I would envision that God would take me and bring your dad back because, at that time, you needed him more.

HOWARD II: That's something you never told me, Ma. You know, I went through a lot of turmoil. And as I grew older, drugs were a way for me to escape. And I really didn't care whether I lived or died at that time. So I kind of put the blame on him. I used to say to myself, well, things would be different if you were here.

And then, I was sleeping one night. I was having a dream, and this dream was real vivid. There was a whole bunch of bodies on the ground, and I was looking for my father's body. And I know he was there, but I couldn't find him. So I think he was trying to wake me up then. And I knew I had to go to Vietnam for me to lay him to rest.

I used to wear a medallion that I had created with his picture etched in gold. I carried it around like it was a part of me. I never took it off. But when I got to Vietnam, that's when I took off the medallion. And when I took that chain off, I felt this sense of relief. I didn't have to carry him anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "FILING AWAY")

VINCENT: You certainly have walked in your dad's footsteps. You honor him daily. I know that he is proud, and I love you dearly.

HOWARD II: I love you too, Ma, and I thank you for sticking it out with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "FILING AWAY")

GREENE: That was Robert Howard II and his mom, Roberta Vincent, remembering his father, Army Sgt. Robert Louis Howard, who was killed in the Vietnam War. Robert II now has three sons of his own. Mother and son recorded their interview in Hartford, Conn., and it will be archived in the Library of Congress and also featured on the StoryCorps podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.