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Just call me an American, please

In Community, Community Contributorsby OC Monitor Staff

My father, RL Jennings, veteran of Korea and Vietnam. The warrior and American hero who raised me. (Photo courtesy Cheryl Gilstrap)

**This piece was submitted as part of our Community Contributor pilot project in collaboration with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

By Cheryl Gilstrap / OC Monitor Community Contributor

My father was a warrior and he was a giant in my life. He was so tall he blocked out the sun. His black boots shone with constant shine from the white cloth and the red, black, and gold Kiwi shoe polish tin. He was always meticulously groomed. His Army green fatigues always smelled fresh and were ironed sharp as a blade.

My father grew up poor with feet and toes that were bent from wearing shoes that were too small. So, how does a man raise a headstrong daughter and her five siblings on a sergeant’s pay? He lived his life so that I could respect what was right in front of me–daily.

He fought for me. He wanted me to have a better life. The only way he knew to give me a better life was to raise me on a soldier’s pay and under the flag of the United States Army.

As a warrior, my father carried that flag to Korea. Twice. In fact, he was protecting that flag while I was born in Leitchfield, Kentucky. When he came home, he took up that flag again and moved to Massachusetts–where my brother and sister were born. Then, the five of us carried the flag to Germany. Two more brothers and sisters were born—in a foreign land under the protection of the red, white, and blue. We then moved to Fort Benning, Georgia. More sacrifices came.

My youngest brother was born in Fort Benning. Then, under the auspices of the flag of the United States of America, my father was sent to another foreign land. This time the U.S. Army sent my father to Vietnam.

He was an engineer. His job was to follow after the Rangers cleared the way and build floating bridges to carry troops into enemy territory. While he was there, Agent Orange was dumped on him on a regular basis. He was wet and cold when he wanted to be dry and warm–but he was a warrior. He had a wife and six small children waiting for him back in the states.

Thankfully, my father came home. He was injured, but he never told us until later on–because he was an American warrior. The Army had another plan for our family of eight. Our Chevrolet station wagon and all of our earthly belongings was shipped into the bright, hot, still raging, Cold War.

For a while we lived behind a barbed wire fence. An urban guerilla group called The Baader Meinhof Gang was threatening our housing area, so we were surrounded by barbed wire. Our cars were checked for bombs when we came back to our housing area and we were taught how to watch for suspicious abandoned vehicles and suspicious people. My father was raising six warriors—we didn’t know any different.

My father retired from the Army in 1973. We moved to Kentucky because we had a wonderful family here. My father has been gone for several years now. My mother didn’t last too long on this earth after my father passed away. How does an Army wife–one who had to be as tough as her warrior husband–how does she go on without her husband. She couldn’t figure it out. She was broken-hearted and she couldn’t stay here without him.

So it is with me. How do I live on after the two giants in my life have passed on? I live on because I have a husband, a daughter, a son, and four grandchildren to love. I was raised by a warrior and I will try my very best to make my father proud. Just call me an American. Please.

Cheryl Gilstrap

Cheryl Gilstrap is a retired middle school reading teacher and a proud Army Brat. She loves spending time with her grandchildren. Reading fiction and writing poetry are also favorite pastimes. She lives in Cromwell with her husband Cecil, a ten-year old black cat named Jack, and a ginger cat named Butters who is always causing trouble around the house.

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