My father, David Clinton Tharp was a decorated 101st airborne paratrooper during WWII. Although he survived the battles of Normandy, Carentan, Holland, and the Battle of the Bulge, combat came with both a physical and mental price.
In 1999 my father passed away and our family went through some of his wartime keepsakes to pay respects. The most interesting of these keepsakes was a stack of letters he sent home to my mother between 1943-1945.
I had seen them as a young girl. I never got past the opening “Hello Darling” or “Sweetheart” without giggling and placing the letters back in the drawer.
Reading them as an adult, I was overwhelmed at the story his writing told. It offered incredible insight into the young hero who bravely honored his country.
The letters were filled with testaments of love for his future wife (my mother) and spoke of his desire to start a family. They exposed a sense of pride, loyalty and patriotism that resulted from serving his country.
The letters also contained something that I was not ready for. Stories of dad recalling frozen dead soldiers stacked up like cord wood or seeing friends vaporize into thin air were devastating to me.
However, they offered insight into some of my father’s post-war behavior.
War changes a soldier. It changes his family too. The battle does not end when the troops come home. As my father used to say, “We all have our cross to bear.”
Dad suffered from severe pain caused by shrapnel, intense night terrors and a sometimes-quick temper in an otherwise gentle disposition.
These traits had an enormous impact on me as a little girl, but nothing came near the times when dad would leave with his hunting rifle and threaten suicide. The house became silent. My mother was silent. I didn’t move or speak. But he always returned with everyone acting as though nothing happened…
Only after the passing of my father and publishing his letters did I fully appreciate both the greatness of my father and the silent struggles he constantly battled. His letters have allowed me to offer greater love and compassion to others impacted by what we now is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
We all have two people inside of us, one that is who we are and one that is who we can be. Sometimes, life can get interrupted by the call to arms or any kind of trauma leaving a long lasting and undetected, silent imprint on our souls.
Perhaps in understanding our fathers, we can begin to understand ourselves a bit more.
Jenny La Sala is the author of Comes a Soldier’s Whisper: A Collection of Wartime Letters with Reflections and Hope for the Future.