I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know that I was the daughter of a Vietnam Veteran, nor a time when I wasn’t very proud of my Dad for his service. I had so many questions about Vietnam and what Dad experienced there, but never seemed to get answers for them. Sometimes I would ask my questions, and Dad would respond with a brief answer and a look of sadness that left me wishing I hadn’t asked.
One question, in particular, had lingered in my mind for as long as I could remember. It wasn’t until I was a sophomore in college that the opportunity to ask it finally arose. My assignment was to learn more about my family members and then give a speech on my family history. I jumped at the chance to ask Dad the question I most wanted to have answered, “Why did you join the Army knowing you’d probably have to go to Vietnam?”
He paused a moment and then he looked at me and said, “I was young and stupid.” Even though I knew there was so much more to it, I just couldn’t push further. I was too overcome with the desire to protect him from the pain that was so clearly written on his face. Would he have shared more with me then, had I asked? Was I even ready to hear the answers then?
I know now, some twenty years later, why Dad made what seemed to me an impossible decision and one that stood in such contradiction to his gentle nature. And, as it turns out, the reason was far more in line with his nature than I ever imagined. He did it for his family.
Even from a young age, Dad was a caregiver and a protector of those he loved. At five years old he took responsibility for his little sister, the youngest of 9 kids, who he called “Bevie-pie.” By high school he was working on the Dobbs’ farm. He lived and worked with the Dobbs family during the week, doing chores on the farm before riding the bus in to school, then riding back for more chores after school. He never shied away from work.
As his high school graduation neared, so did his wedding to Mom. Dad set about planning his future. His father was very ill, and he felt it his duty and his honor to help support his mother and sister. With his family to support and a new life with his bride-to-be about to start, continuing his education just wasn’t an option financially. My grandfather, Mom’s father, offered Dad their family farm. But Dad knew firsthand the long hours and the stress of farm life, and he didn’t want that for himself or for his family. He also knew factory life was not for him. So as his father’s health deteriorated, he began considering the military.
Dad’s family was not new to military service. His grandfather, Hans, served in the Norwegian army before emigrating from Norway to the United States. His father, Jasper, served in the U.S. Army in the World War I era. Two of his older brothers, Bob & Ron, also served in the military. And, even if he didn’t chose to continue on to a career in the military, it would still provide him financial assistance to continue his education while still supporting his family.
So, with his parents signing to give their permission, Dad signed enlistment papers in 1968. It was a year of many changes. In April, his father, Jasper, passed away. Dad graduated from Colfax High School in May. One week later, on June 1st, my parents were married. Two short weeks later, Dad left for Basic Training in Kentucky.
Dad joined the Army for the same reason he did everything else in his life—he did it for his family. Though he likely made the choice with a certain innocence and naiveté, knowing he took on such an incredible responsibility to make a better life for those he loved makes me even more proud of him. Yes, Dad was young, but I disagree with him on one point: he was far from stupid. At 18, he made the best decision he could have. And in the end, his service allowed him to go on to school and to become an excavator, which he truly loved. And through it all, he took care of his family–of all of us. For this we could not be more thankful nor more proud.
Three generations of Johnsons in the military: At left, Hans Johnson, Glen’s grandfather, served in the Norwegian army prior to immigrating to the United States. At center, Jasper Johnson, Glen’s father, served in the U.S. Army in the World War I era. Glen, right, served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971.
Glen worked on the Dobbs’ family’s dairy farm during high school. His bride-to-be’s father offered the young couple his farm, but he knew firsthand the long hours and stress of farm life, and he didn’t want that for himself or his family.