Guest post: A unique connection between Jessica (Granddaughter of a Vietnam Veteran) and Tracey (Daughter of a Vietnam Veteran) who owns this particular blog- My father’s Notebook. Learn more about this new connection from Jessica’s perspective.
My Unknown Soldier
by Jessica Zumhingst
It is quite a strange feeling to have such a strong connection to someone you never got to meet. To never really know anything about them, but to always have a curiosity and longing to know more about their life. For the past 25 years of my life, this has been my relationship with my maternal grandfather.
As a young girl, I didn’t think too much about why I never got the opportunity to meet my mom’s dad. I am an only child, as is my mother, so it is not like the topic came up all the time at huge family gatherings. Nobody ever really talked about my grandfather’s death all that much. All I knew is that he died serving our country.
My grandfather was William Henry Clevenger, a Sergeant Major in the United States Army. I remember the day that I finally took the time to closely inspect the various medals that my mom had displayed in the living room. This was the day that I first longed to know more about my grandfather and his life.
My mom didn’t talk about her father all that much. He passed when she was just a freshman in college. She would mention him in stories about her childhood, but I never really inquired about his time in the Army. I knew it was a painful subject for my mom and I didn’t want to upset her. I decided to look to the Internet in my pursuit to know more.
In 2002, I found the Virtual Wall website. I saw a picture of my grandpa, the same picture that was framed with his medals in my living room. I wrote a short quote from a patriotic song. I was only 14 at the time and I didn’t know what else to write. I set up my email address as the point-of-contact for his memorial. About a year later, I was brought back to the website to find a post from Colonel Carl M. Mott Jr. about my grandfather. Along with kind words about serving with Sergeant Major William H. Clevenger, he included a photo of the two of them. This was my first small glimpse of my grandfather’s role in the Army. According to Colonel Mott Jr., my grandfather was a “natural communicator” and the “finest Sergeant Major [he had] ever known.”
My own father enlisted in the Navy when he was just 18 years old and by this time in my life I was old enough to listen to his stories about Vietnam. He told me what life was like in Vietnam and explained to me what his role and my grandfather’s role was over there. My dad also told me about the letter his mother sent him telling him that my mom’s father had been killed. I knew that I could never begin to understand the pain that my mother had gone through as a young woman.
During the following years, I did gain the courage to ask my mom more questions about my grandpa and to explore the various websites that I found on the Internet regarding the war. I never got the chance to visit the actual Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., but I did visit various traveling walls and took rubbings of my grandfather’s name. My childish curiosity had transformed into pride. I may have not known much about my grandpa, but I did know one thing: I was proud to be his granddaughter. I was determined to honor him and tried to do so in various ways. I became more vocal about my connection to war and my grandfather. I wrote a number of poems and research papers about WWII and the Vietnam War for my schoolwork in high school. Videos and books about war were now of interest to me. I later went to college and became a teacher. Every time a new school year would begin, I would consciously take the time to talk to my students about the importance of the Pledge of Allegiance and National Anthem and all about the sacrifices our soldiers make so that we can be free.
This past Veteran’s Day, the same day as my 26th birthday, I typed in my grandfather’s name online in hopes of finding a new story or photo posted of him. Boy did I find a surprise! I found a blog written by Tracey Wolfe about her father, Glen “Pete” Johnson. Mr. Johnson arrived in Vietnam at the young age of 19. I read Tracey’s blog about looking for a certain name on the Wall- a man that her father had looked up to and considered a father figure during his time overseas. That name was William H. Clevenger.
I couldn’t believe what I had stumbled upon! Her beautifully written blog detailed how her father had kept a piece of paper with my grandfather’s name on it in his wallet and how she and her family had searched to find his name on the memorial. She also shared her father’s writing about the morning my grandfather was killed and how her father was the one who had found his body outside the bunker. I immediately called my mother and read her the blog post. It was hard to read some of those words out loud while fighting back the tears. At first, my mom was quiet on the phone. I knew the words had touched her. She was just as surprised as I was. I read her my response to Tracey’s post and told her that I would let her know if anything else was posted.
It was then that I received an email from Thuy asking if it was okay if she gave my contact information to Tracey and her sister. She told me that they would like to correspond with me. I was a bit hesitant, only because I did not feel like I had much information to offer, but I told Thuy that it was fine with me. Tracey contacted me via email a short while later. She told me more about her family and the amazing man that her father was. I gave Tracey my mom’s contact information and she contacted my mom as well. Tracey’s mother, Sally, has also shared such touching stories with us about her young husband leaving for Vietnam just weeks after they were married. Reading their stories has made me both laugh and cry and I feel so blessed to have connected with such wonderful people.
Words cannot express how much this newfound connection has meant to my mother and I. Both sides agree that our angels in heaven definitely had a hand in it! For the first time, my mom and I are able to have in-depth conversations about her childhood and my grandfather’s life. I have learned so many things about the both of them. In a way, our connection to Tracey and her family has started the healing process for both of us. I am so glad that my mom and I can finally talk about something she has kept bottled up for so many years. As for me, I never realized that I had anything to heal from. I guess in a way I did. I would like to take a moment to share some of the information I have learned about my grandfather and his service to our country.
William Henry Clevenger was born in 1919 in Columbus, Indiana. He was an incredibly bright child with a bit of a rebellious side. He had 4 siblings, 3 sisters and a brother, but when he was young his mother moved with his siblings and left him to stay with his aunt and uncle. My mom thinks this was because he was a little “hard to handle.” He graduated from high school when he was only 14. Like I said…I have been told that he was VERY smart (he was the kind of person that could do freakishly long math problems in his head…a gene his granddaughter did not inherit!) He actually joined the Army when he was only 16 years old, even though he said he was 18. When the army found out that he was not 18, his aunt was able to sign and give him permission to stay. For about 30 years, the Army was his home. He served in WWII, the Korean Conflict, and Vietnam. My mom thinks he stayed in the Army so long because it was the one constant in his life and he felt secure there.
My mom, Katie Clevenger, was born in 1950 at Fort Devin in Massachusetts. She moved all over the United States as a child, which was tough for her because she never felt like she had the time to really get accustomed to any one school. In 1964-65, my grandpa went overseas to Germany. According to my mother, my grandfather enjoyed going to Germany more than anywhere else. My mom and my grandma were going to move there, but there was no available housing for them and my mom would have had to go to a boarding school. When my grandpa returned to the states, the family moved around a lot. Throughout my mom’s childhood, they lived in Massachusetts, North Carolina, Virginia, Kansas, and Hawaii. My grandpa spent some time working at the Pentagon when they lived in Alexandria, Virginia. Meanwhile, my grandma held different government jobs at the army bases and one at an air force base. They were able to settle in Seymour, Indiana because my grandpa taught ROTC about an hour north at Indiana University. After that, he was sent to Vietnam. He was stationed at Tay Ninh Base Camp.
According to my mom, my grandpa never talked about Vietnam or anything having to do with war. He kept that part of his life to himself. He would write letters, but they were always short and to the point. On the morning of June 6th 1969, an attack took place on the camp at Tay Ninh. The camp was hit with over 200 rounds of rockets and mortars. The base suffered shrapnel damage and some buildings caught on fire. My grandfather, SGM William H. Clevenger, was gravely wounded and could not be saved. When he was killed, my mom was only a freshman at Ball State University (she later became a second grade teacher for 37 years). My grandfather was 48 years old and would have been eligible to return home to my mother and grandmother just two months later. His name now appears on Panel 23W Line 084 of The Wall.
My pride for my grandfather has only grown with each new piece of information I have learned. I have always been proud to be his granddaughter, but I feel like my connection to him has deepened. Every morning when I say the Pledge of Allegiance with my Kindergarten students, I think of him. Every time I see a flag flying on a front porch, I think of him. Every night when I lay my head down on my pillow with my husband and my dog, I think of him. I am thankful for his sacrifice and the sacrifice that all the brave men and women that serve our country make. I can only hope that my grandpa is looking down with as much pride for me as I have for him.
I would also like to express my gratitude for Tracey Wolfe and her entire family. Thank you for your heartfelt words and for sharing your experiences and stories with my mother and I. Also, thank you to the Thuy Smith International Outreach for making this connection possible. God Bless you all!
Related Post (Tracy’s Reflection) My Father’s Notebook, One Name on the Wall
Copyright (C) May not use without permission.