The proud, the family, the Marines

Generations: Jim Rhoda served in the corps in Vietnam, and now his son has been called for active duty for the new war against terrorism of the 21st century.

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

September 22, 2001|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

On a dreary afternoon along North Point Road, the rain made tiny bomb bursts on the hood of Jim Rhoda's truck while he waited for his son outside a car dealership.

Like most Americans, he was struggling to define the catastrophic events that have shaken the nation since the terrorist attacks Sept. 11.

But closer to his heart, the son he now waited for - bright, handsome, a new father - is a combat Marine, and destiny has summoned him to go into harm's way as war is on the wind.

Just like Jim Rhoda himself, when he was young and stood straight as an arrow and looked like a kid on a Marine Corps recruiting poster.

But that was before Khe Sanh, the disease-ridden tropics and the maddening quagmire of Vietnam that ripped lives, families and a country apart.

Many among the 2 million Americans who went to Vietnam are grappling with the scenes of their sons and daughters packing duffel bags, filling out wills and waiting for that dreaded trip to the airport for goodbyes, a tableau freeze-framed across a generation.

"I told my son that life without honor is no life at all," said Rhoda, 52, wrestling to contain his composure, then losing it. "I'm proud of our president and the young Americans who will be going to this war, especially my son, but it is incredibly scary when it's your kid."

His son, Donald, 23, has an easy smile, blazing eyes and close-cropped hair.

He works as a new-car salesman at Don White's Car Center and resides in Edgemere with his wife, Raimie, and their 4-month-old daughter, Emmy.

After a four-year hitch in the Marine Corps as a mortar specialist and a combat tour of Kosovo during the Balkans war, the younger Rhoda was placed on inactive reserve status last year and started college and his new job.

"On the day of the attacks, it was very weird," said Donald Rhoda. "I sold a new vehicle to a guy who plunked down $24,000 in cash for it. I went home, walked in the door and was told that I got a call from the Marine Corps, that I should saddle up for the desert."

Proud of the tradition

Like his father, Donald Rhoda is gung-ho, proud of the Marine Corps tradition.

But his wife, at first, hesitated at her husband's being activated.

"That night he was alerted, I just started wondering who was going to take care of us, me and the baby," Raimie Rhoda said. "But then I remembered the devastation of the terrorists' actions and I totally supported his going. Donald is a Marine, a good Marine, and he and others like him will hopefully make the country safe again."

Since returning to civilian life, Donald Rhoda sees a side of American life that is disquieting - discourtesy, class elitism, people's obsessions with materialism and hip trinkets like cellular telephones.

"In my brief lifetime, I have been to 13 countries and saw a lot," he said. "And after being discharged I found that a lot of Americans take things for granted, their liberty and peace. I gave the corps four years of my life, but I can't stop owing my country."

Similarities, contrasts

There are similarities and contrasts in the Americas known in the youths of father and son.

The father joined the Marines at 17 and went to Vietnam a year later, in bloody 1968, when the air crackled with protest, other national tragedies, other lifestyles.

"It was pretty much the opposite in the 1960s, people into do-your-own-thingism, spread the wealth, reject symbols of the corrupt institutions," said Jim Rhoda, who lives in Parkville with his wife, Barbara. They have four other adult children.

Today, Jim Rhoda is a licensed minister and counselor who does some work at Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 451 in Dundalk. He is an imposing figure with a shaved head and a trimmed mustache.

He limps from major back surgery and is on disability from the U.S. Postal Service.

He also receives a small disability payment from the Department of Veterans Affairs for injuries suffered in Vietnam.

Troubling arrogance

One of the most troubling topics in the conversations he hears these days is a thread of national arrogance toward Osama bin Laden, the presumed terrorist leader, and the countries of the Middle East where Rhoda's son and other American warriors will most likely be assigned.

"People say that bin Laden is only one man, somewhat touched in the head and loaded with millions of dollars," Jim Rhoda said. "But he is smart, clever and dedicated to his cause, as wrong as it is. People, the politicians, said in the `60s that the mighty U.S. could whip the raggedy peasants of Vietnam with no problem.

"Guess what? The VC and NVA were very good soldiers, the best in the world in their environment," he said, referring to the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. "We soldiers never really lost a battle, but our country's leaders and our fellow countrymen who sent us there lost the will to fight."

An unforgiving battlefield

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