A salute, at long last, to a deserving man

Real Life

March 19, 2006|By JO PARKER | JO PARKER,SUN REPORTER

The decorated war veteran never really stood a chance.

He was my mother's third husband in six years, and I was sure I didn't even need to learn his name. He would just be Loser No. 3.

His war injuries -- including the loss of much of his right leg -- gave him an awkward gait. Embarrassing.

Born and raised in the South, he would use racist language without blinking an eye. Disgusting.

But worst of all, he tried to jolly me, a 20-year-old college student, into liking him. Revolting.

I looked down my nose at his prejudice, blind to the fact that my prejudice was far worse. Inside, I sneered at him. What a loser he must have been to have gone to Vietnam. After all, if he'd have been smarter, he wouldn't have opened himself up to being drafted.

I knew I was better than him.

Eventually, though, even I had to admit that he treated my mother wonderfully. She'd had a difficult life at best, and he was the antidote. She finally had someone who prized her.

Someone who was even willing to put up with a stepdaughter with a superiority complex.

He never knew when a misstep with me would result in shrapnel.

In the late 1980s, the blast came at a barbecue. "Look at her go!" he chortled as I picked up a fork to begin eating. Everyone else had already begun to chew. Sensitive about my weight, I was offended that he'd made a joke about my eating habits.

I got up and gathered my things to leave. He begged me to stay, apologizing. I would have none of it. I left and didn't eat another meal in his home for two years. Shortly after that, I moved outside easy driving distance from their home.

I'm not sure when my one-person Cold War began to thaw. Maybe I had to see him through my husband's eyes as he asked questions about combat. Maybe I had to see the unbridled joy in my daughter's face when she toddled over to him for hugs.

Maybe I just had to grow up a bit to appreciate him.

Recently, Laurens County, S.C., solicited nominations for people to honor as heroes. My mother asked me to help write a nomination letter for my stepfather.

I viewed it as a chance to right the wrongs I'd done to him.

I wrote about his time in Vietnam, about how he heard noise behind his unit and went to investigate. I described how an enemy combatant used an automatic weapon to shred my stepfather's legs. I told -- yes, it was with pride -- about how he managed to crawl far enough to alert his unit to the danger.

He earned two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars for Valor.

But his wounds and actions in combat aren't what make him a hero. The fact that each day he has to deal with lingering pain from his wounds doesn't make him a hero.

He's a hero because of the man he is each and every day. I've seen him change plans at a moment's notice so he can help someone in need, regardless of the person's color or religion. I've seen him deal with the suicide of a friend whose mind never made it back from Southeast Asia. I've seen his grief over the loss of another soldier -- whom he didn't identify as "black" as he would have in years past, just as a longtime friend. And I've seen him teach my 5-year-old daughter to fish -- taking care to keep her safe on the dock.

It's taken the better part of 20 years for him to win his fight against his harshest critic, but Steve Murphy can claim victory.

There aren't any Bronze Stars awarded for the bravery he showed, no Purple Hearts for the ways I know I have wounded him with my words and thoughts.

All I can offer is my respect -- no longer begrudging -- and my love.

jo.parker@baltsun.com

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