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Signal Photos

 

I am my Father's Daughter

FIRST-PERSON

Posted: November 24, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: November 24, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Robert "Blair" Adkins

 

“The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or a curse.”  Carlos Castaneda

Several events of the past few months triggered more memories then usual of my father – the Traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, the date of my dad’s passing, Veteran’s Day and the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s death.

I always knew my dad, Robert “Blair” Adkins, had been a veteran of the Korean War, but knew few facts beyond that until the last year of his life when he opened up to me and shared his war experiences.

For the first time in my life, my ever stalwart father fought back tears as he denounced what he called the “senseless loss of life.” Always stoic, his raw emotion rattled me.

As he recounted his tale, I learned he had been forced to take some horrific actions – even against one of his own seriously wounded men – whom he had thrown over his shoulder in the sub-frigid mountainous terrain – while attempting to save as many of the men in his platoon as possible. War actions haunted him throughout his entire life.

A member of the Fox Company, my dad was in the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division – one of the most highly decorated battalion in the Marine Corps with the motto “Retreat, Hell!” My dad was promoted to Platoon Leader while on the field of one of history’s most infamous battles in the Chosin Reservoir – his platoon had been left to fight tens of thousands of invading Chinese soldiers while other troops were ordered to withdraw from that frozen hell in November of 1950. He never forgave General Douglas MacArthur for the order to retreat after countless young men had given their lives in the fight against North Korea.

Most likely my dad’s unit was intended to be a sacrificial lamb so other soldiers could scramble out of harm’s way. Leaders probably never expected his platoon to descend that mountain in anything other than body bags – if the bodies were retrieved at all. At the base of the mountain, the only bridge crossing a river to safety had been blown apart to prevent enemy troops from advancing.

True to my dad’s dogged determination, however, he led his men down that mountain at the untested age of 22. Two-thirds or more of his platoon were killed in a grueling three-day battle with temperatures plummeting to 50 degrees below zero. Injured and bloodied, he led the last 15 of his men to freedom.

My dad was awarded with a Bronze Star for Valor and a Purple Heart. And he was invited to officer’s school, to which he declined.

“War shaped my social and political beliefs forever. The experience taught me an important lesson,” my dad told me in that emotional moment. “I realized nothing in life could ever be insurmountable after that.”

As a result of his war experiences, he also said that he came away with a lifelong attitude that "we are our brothers' keepers."

Blair spent the rest of his life testing limits and challenging status quo. He was an independent thinker who loved having new life experiences and talking to any stranger he met. He read voraciously and devoured any chance to learn something new. Family dinners often involved lively debates over current events. Nearly always an optimist, in his mind adversity only presented itself as a challenge to be conquered. He was a lifelong risk-taker.

After the war, my dad moved to Anchorage, Alaska to start the first of many businesses that he launched throughout his life. He became interested in politics and campaigned for two presidential candidates and a U.S. Senator. He was invited to an Inaugural Ball in Washington D.C. for President Kennedy. Later, he moved our family down to Washington state where I finished growing up in a suburb of Seattle.

My dad was a lifelong entrepreneur opening several successful businesses including one of the first retail store security systems ever in the late 60s - one that he initially designed and built in the garage of our family home. To this day, one of the stores in my hometown still has the big clunky device mounted on the ceiling of their store.

I sat with him in the family home on the night he was dying. My father had put up an uncommon fight to defy his cancer – far beyond what his doctors wanted him to do and the date at which he should have initially passed. He put himself through grueling and unnecessary, according to his doctors, treatments trying to survive.

As the oldest child, however, it fell to me to let him know that fight was over. I wanted to give him the chance to let us know if he had any final requests. He asked me “if this is it?” to which I replied “Yes.” He gave no final instructions. Then, after helping to care for him for the past year I finally broke down in tears. My dad reached out and patted my back. And then he drifted off.

By the time of his death on Sept. 28, 2005, at age 77, my dad had been married 55 years to my mom – the woman he had forever referred to as “his bride.”

We held a small, private outdoor service with military honors at a veteran’s cemetery. Although it very often rains in the Northwest, on that day it was sunny with wispy cumulus clouds punctuating the clear blue sky. As I spoke on my father’s behalf I began with a quote from Carlos Castaneda that I felt described my dad’s outlook in life.

And I closed with a refrain from a Native American poem my father had always kept: “Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not there. I do not sleep.” Apparently, not even in death did my dad plan to remain inactive.

As I spoke, however, I worried about disrespecting the veterans and Marines who stood up for my father, because in describing what kind of man my father had become and why, I shared his disgust over the loss of so many young men in the Korean War and his feeling that the war had all been for naught and had been waged only because of the ego of a military leader. I think his mind always saw dead fellow Marines lying frozen on the Chosin Reservoir.

But after I expressed my thoughts, both able-bodied Marines and aging veterans alike privately thanked me and assured me I should not be ashamed of my words.

My own personal life at times has been marked by some pretty heavy ups and downs, though nothing as horrific as the battlefield. But I always survived. And today, because of my father’s role modeling, I proudly say that “I am my father’s daughter.

jana@signalscv.com

 

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