This is the first of two related posts featuring writing by Kathy Nguyen. In this short story, Kathy Nguyen looks unflinchingly at death, vulnerability, the slight of omission, and the tenuous (in)visibility of South Vietnamese veterans’ official status as “veterans” in America. This short story originally appeared in Kartika Review.
& please stay tuned for an upcoming essay by Kathy Nguyen, which will ponder Vietnamese music and memory/inheritance.
Father was dying.
The doctor reported to us that he had several organ failures and that he was critically ill, even after all those surgeries and a two-week stay at the rehabilitation center. We had been told he would make at least a 70% recovery.
He was slowly withering away. It was painful to watch a man who had survived so much in two different worlds only to experience these new bodily pains. My family and father did not anticipate such a future.
Father was dying on the hospital bed in Room 3010. Per his request, the BiPAP mask was taken off, and it was just a matter of time.
The doctors and nurses assured us they would make him as comfortable as they could.
I stayed with Father in the evenings, listening to his stories.
I was being selfish because I wanted to hear his voice more before it faded out completely.
“Ba?” I answered. Father called me Three as an endearment, to remind me that I was the youngest.
“You okay?” he asked, worried.
I wanted to be honest, to say that I was still bitter over the fact that we were given false hope.
“Three,” he chided.
“I’m sorry.” The crying began. It was a long time in the making, threatening for weeks to spill out.
Father wheezed as he tried to breathe.
I rushed to his side and asked if he was okay.
It was painful to see him smile. He must have recognized the guilt etched on my face.
“Three,” he began again as he patted my hand. “It’s okay. I’m old and sick. Beyond sick. I’m going to die. Don’t cry. I don’t want to see tears before I go.”
“It’s not the way to go, Ba.”
He looked at me thoughtfully. “There’s no right way to die is there? I witnessed comrades and friends dying in Vietnam. I didn’t think it was right for them to be killed like that, but they’re dead. What is there left? They didn’t even get a proper burial. I’m sure their bodies were left on the field, rotting away with no identification.”
“Ba … that’s a rather awful thing to say.”
Father coughed and was breathing a bit more rapidly, like a person starving for oxygen. “I’m luckier than them, I guess. At least my family will bury me and remember to visit my tombstone once in a while. And I’m sure you’ll be the last person I see when I die. I’m sure I won’t be forgotten yet.”
“Ba …” I began.
He shook his head. “For some reason, I knew you, Three, were going to be the last person I see. It’s a fortunate blessing, though. I have the honor of having at least one family member present before I die. Soldiers didn’t get that option. But that’s how the war went. People died. Bodies disappeared. All that’s left are memories of nobody.”
Father’s past, present, and even future all went back to Vietnam: his place of birth.
I grew up listening to those stories, the ones he repeated, those ghosts still lingering. They needed to be released once in a while. And those ghosts were important to him.
Father looked at the white ceiling.
“I didn’t want to fight in a war. I didn’t want to hunt people and kill them. I just wanted to live a peaceful life and continue working on the fields. But I didn’t have a choice because the Vietcong and South Vietnamese couldn’t live in harmony.”
He looked at me.
“I was tortured before agreeing to serve.”
He always told us that, but he never gave us the details. We knew better than to ask.
Silence engulfed us.
He coughed and began again. “I was in the Vietnamese Navy, Hải quân, serving with the United States Navy. Of course, you know what happened after that. They all left us, and now we’re here.”
“Ba, are you considered a veteran in Vietnam?”
He turned to look at me, eyes hauntingly blank, no response.
“Uh, like chiến binh? You know, like we always hear in those Asia and Thuy Nga DVDs?”
Father managed another tight, pained smile. “You learned to speak Vietnamese through those music videos.”
I held my tongue.
“Yes, like chiến binh. But I don’t care if I’m considered one or not. Why does that matter? What’s the difference? It’s strange to me. You fight in a war for basically two countries. You get left behind. You don’t want to get killed so you flee your home country. You get sponsors in the new land: some bad people who take advantage of you, some good people. But then what? People like me don’t get recognized for serving a war. Because I’m not from America.”
I looked at Father briefly, and then my eyes landed on the white tiles. There were times when I didn’t know what to say, simply because I wasn’t born in Vietnam.
Father closed his eyes, but he was still breathing.
I hated this—all of this pain and suffering at the end of a life already filled with so much pain and suffering.
Looking at the ticking hands of the clock, I pondered the word veteran.
Who had the right to claim it?
As Father slept, I used my phone to look up a definition.
vet·er·an ˈvedərən,ˈvetrən/ noun
noun: veteran; plural noun: veterans
1. a person who has had long experience in a particular field.
synonyms: old hand, past master, doyen, vet
2. a person who has served in the military.
“a veteran of two world wars”
This was our world, filled with words with vague, constantly shifting meanings. A tragedy in itself—to live in a world where words lose their meanings.
I lingered on the second definition. It didn’t say you have to be in the U.S. military to be considered a veteran.
Father and Mother always watched the SBTN channel’s news, and in certain states—California and Texas mostly—what I thought of as Vietnamese veterans united often to honor their time and their fallen comrades.
But how many Vietnamese names were carved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial? Father did serve with the United States Navy if not in it. Did that not matter? Did allies not matter?
There are two veterans in the family. Father, who wasn’t recognized as one, and my brother, who was born here and served in the U.S. military and is therefore formally recognized as one. The officially recognized veteran receives the benefits of the institution, and he understands that privilege he holds over the unrecognized.
Even when Father attained his U.S. citizenship, he was not recognized as a veteran.
Father was still asleep.
Waiting is always the hardest part, especially waiting for the expected.
Glancing back at Father, my mind drifted to the pre-1975 Vietnamese “nhac vang,” or golden songs that father and mother loved as classics, though mother had gotten weary of how younger Vietnamese singers used those songs to boost their own popularities.
“Most of these songs were written as a reaction to the war. Not all, but the war songs composed at the time were based from the composer’s experiences,” Father had shared. “Some Vietnamese, like me, have never moved on from those experiences. They stay with you. It’s like you’re frozen in time, never advancing.”
“Until you die.”
Father’s breathing was getting more and more rapid.
“Depressing, isn’t it?” Father wheezed as he opened his eyes.
I didn’t know what to say. If I uttered a word, I would surely lose control and let the tears stream down.
“I don’t want to be buried here. But I don’t want to be buried back there where I lost a home,” he continued. “Do I even have a home anymore?”
“I … I wasted so much time fighting for a war I didn’t even want to be a part of … was criticized constantly and had to … had to hunt other people’s pets for survival. I fought with our so-called allies. I killed and tried not to be killed. I was a murderer.”
“Ba … no …” I tried to speak, but father continued.
“Now I live with the people who abandoned us.”
Sometimes grievances are justified and not spoken out of pettiness.
“I don’t care about being honored, but … who did I fight for?”
Father passed away the following morning.
The first wave of grief and repressed anger suffocated me. As I gazed at Father’s lifeless body, I wanted to escape, to flee from the past and the present.
The doctor announced his time of death.
Father’s unknown yet remarkable legacy died with him that day.
My siblings and I were listening to the funeral director as she asked us questions about our father for his death certificate.
Births and deaths have certificates—an archive of one’s life and death relegated to pieces of paper. And these pieces of paper prove a person’s existence and nonexistence.
“Was your father a vet?” the funeral director asked.
I looked up and sighed.
My brother cleared his throat. “Yes. He served in the South Vietnamese Navy and fought with the U.S. Navy.”
We all sensed the funeral director’s hesitation.
My brother held a firm tone. This was a battle that he wouldn’t lose. “He’s a vet.”
He was adamant about Father.
The funeral director finally checked the box that indicated the deceased was a veteran.
I scanned my brother’s face; he looked satisfied. I looked at my sister; she shrugged her shoulders, and I copied the gesture in response.
It was awful of me, but I kept thinking: Would Father even care?
The following day we went to the memorial garden where father wished to be buried, despite his longing sometimes to be returned to Vietnam.
We were talking about the marker and what was to be engraved.
Father was a simple, private man. Mother said that Father’s wish was not to be extravagant. She quoted him: “When you’re dead, you’re dead. You become ashes. There’s really nothing left behind.”
We met with the project coordinator, who asked the very same question as the funeral director, as if we were repeating the days in a cycle.
“Was your father a vet?” she asked.
My siblings spoke with the project coordinator. I just listened; my mind stuck on that one complicated question.
“Was he a vet?”
What constitutes a veteran? Nationality? But Father lived across two different cultures, two different worlds. He was a citizen to both countries. For 30 years in the United States, he told neighbors and colleagues that he was from South Vietnam.
Then there’s the question of the union of South Vietnam and North Vietnam. Had he returned to Vietnam, what would have happened? Has everyone who experienced the war there moved on?
Father didn’t move on, either as a veteran or a civilian.
The person dies. But memories of war continue to linger.
Wars are a legacy, but only a few can claim to be a part of that legacy.
My brother sighed and repeated, “Yes, our father was a vet. He was in the South Vietnamese Navy and fought with the U.S. Navy.”
“Works for me,” was the project coordinator’s simple reply.
If only it were that simple.
The project coordinator continued, “The front of the marker will have the basics: his name, date of birth, and date of death. Did y’all want anything carved on the back? That will be $150, and you can engrave as many words or images as you want. There’s no limit.”
I remained silent. I had asked my siblings to make all the decisions before we entered the memorial garden.
My brother requested that the South Vietnamese flag be engraved on the back of the marker.
But will people understand the significance of that flag?
We opted for an obituary of 55–70 words for budgeting reasons, each word beyond the first 50 costing extra money.
I stared at the blank computer screen. I had asked my family if I could write Father’s obituary. They agreed. Mother noted that Father wouldn’t have cared to be mentioned in any form of print media.
Because once you’re dead, you’re dead. There was no need to overindulge in thinking that people would mourn your death or read your obituary in a paper no one subscribed to anymore.
There was a standard format to follow, but I wasn’t sure what to write, especially something personal to share with the public. So I began with what the funeral director wanted: Father’s birthdate, his date of death, his age, his birth country, his immigration year. Then I pressed Enter and typed a concluding statement about his survivors.
I always thought it was morbid to name the family members who “survived him”—something ominous about that terminology.
After typing these sentences, my fingers continued to ghost over the keyboard.
I clicked the Save button again, feeling irritated with myself.
Father’s life was too rich to be condensed into a mere 70 words, his identity outlined in 70 words. And it took 59 words to write the obligatory stuff.
Living was already expensive, but death and post-death were equally expensive.
That was another harsh reality of life.
I could only type this lone sentence:
“He was a Vietnamese veteran who served in the South Vietnamese Navy.”
The tears forced their way out.
Did that sentence make a difference?
The only time father’s veteran status would be publicly recognized was going to be in the local newspaper, for a fee, on one day. The obituary would most likely be glanced over and soon forgotten by the newspaper’s subscribers, then recycled and replaced by the next day’s paper.
Father’s time in Vietnam, his experiences, and his memories could only be fully recognized and remembered by Mother.
His identity, legacy, and veteranship were simplified into words that would be printed and forgotten.
His body, full of emotional and battle scars, was reduced to ashes. Just like Father’s friends and other Vietnamese soldiers, some of their bodies disregarded and discarded, reduced to almost nothing. Their identities either confirmed or unconfirmed after death.
But for Father, here, his death was confirmed, half of his fragmented identity confirmed, but no one else cared enough to confirm the other parts.
And that was the hardest part.
“The Veteran” was first published in Kartika Review, Summer 2017, Issue 18. Reprinted with permission.
Kathy Nguyen is a doctoral candidate in Multicultural Women’s and Gender Studies at Texas Woman’s University. Her parents became refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and permanently settled in Arkansas after temporarily being rehomed in Fort Chaffee. Kathy attended the University of Arkansas where she received both her bachelors and MSW. Broadly, she is interested in Asian diasporic narratives and the memories associated with the loss of home and disappearance of citizenships, often examining them through literature and music. While not musically gifted, she has fond memories of listening through her parents’ cassette tapes and watching musical variety shows on VHS and DVD with them. Interestingly, she learned to read and write Vietnamese, though not very well, by watching Vietnamese karaoke DVDs, much to her parents’ bemusement.