My alcoholic dad's death forever changed my view of the military

May 26, 2016 at 11:45 a.m. ET
Image: Debbie Wolfe

Memorial Day is a special holiday for those who’ve lost a loved one in military service. For me, the holiday is twofold. Yes, I remember the passing of my military dad, but it's also the day I remember all the best things about my father. It’s when I celebrate Father’s Day.

My father was always proud to be a soldier. Sure, he would grumble about Army politics or how the service caused him to have bad knees and feet. Nevertheless, he was good at being a solider. This was ironic because he did not choose to join the Army on his own.

More:You're not going to find my religion inside any church in America

He was part of the Vietnam draft, and he had no intentions of being a military man. He was going to go to a local college and play football. That dream was cut short when he received his draft letter right before graduation — football dreams would have to wait.

But after the war ended and he satisfied his minimal service requirements, he didn't leave. He re-enlisted and went on to serve 20 years in the Army, retiring before he was 40. It would seem that with a full military career and generous retirement package under his belt, he would relax and move on.

This was not the case; he had a hard time transitioning into civilian life.

My dad had a rough childhood. He grew up poor in a little town in Eastern Kentucky with no father figure. He showed promise and talent in playing football at the local college, but academics was not his main concern. Whether he realized it at the time or not, the Army was not only an escape from his small town, but it also provided him with a routine and security. He became good with his job and was proud to be a good soldier. He had some personal rough spots to deal with — mostly alcoholism —  but despite the drinking problem, he still did his job.

The downward spiral began when he left his Army life. I guess it’s like a prisoner leaving incarceration after so many years. You get so used to one life, it’s hard to blend in with “normal” people. I saw his unraveling.

More: Leaving a cult after 14 years complicates your relationship with God

He drank more, moved from job to job and his marriage tanked. He eventually left and fell out of touch for a few years. When he came back into my life, he was a shell of what he used to be. Had I known that I would only have five months left with him, I would have spent every day with him. Alas, fate wasn’t so kind. He passed away shortly after Thanksgiving that year.

For those who have never had to deal with all the arrangements when someone passes, it’s a daunting task. You are trying to deal with your grief but still have to take care of necessary business. Within a few minutes of my dad taking his last breath, my siblings and I had make decisions for my father’s funeral arrangements. In my grief, I mentioned that he was in the Army. Within minutes the hospital grief coordinator had an Army representative on the phone to help take care of my dad.

I never really appreciated the Army. I grew up as an Army brat, but it was always just my dad’s job. Yet, seeing how much they care for their soldiers when they die was more than I expected. I thought the special funeral treatment was reserved for those who died in combat. I learned that any soldier that served the country with honor was given a full military funeral with honors.

Needless to say, we did bury my father in a military cemetery. If you have never witnessed a military funeral, complete with a special honor guard, it’s a sight to behold. Each branch of the military has a special unit dedicated to honoring soldiers at funerals. They arrived in full uniform and escorted us to the gravesite. They then presented arms (salutes) as my father’s urn was placed on a table with an American flag. After the interment service and benediction, my father received a 21-gun salute followed by a bugler playing Taps. Then, they folded the flag in silence, each fold precise and deliberate with care. On bended knee, the flag was handed to us and we were thanked for my father’s service.

More: I feel guilty hiring help, but I do it anyway

The respect and love executed in every detail made me understand why my father loved being a soldier. They take care of each other. These men and women didn’t know him; they didn’t know anything about his troubles with alcohol or his poor upbringing. They gave him final honors befitting any war hero because he was a fellow soldier. This made me respect the Army even more.

It’s been eight years since he passed away. Every Memorial Day, I visit my father.

It's the busiest day for a military cemetery. The entire cemetery is a sea of American flags, and families drive from far destinations to pay their respects. It’s always the most festive day too. Sure, there are tears, but there are also jets flying over, special motorcycle honor guards and old soldiers commiserating military life.

I prefer it this way, to celebrate my father’s memory with something he loved. He loved a crowd, he loved to talk and he loved being a soldier. Memorial Day is the day I celebrate my dad — and everything that made him who he was.

Before you go, check out our slideshow below:

Patriotic quotes
Image: miodrag ignjatovic/Getty Images