Out of Loss, Rediscovering a Giant

And what it means to be a warrior.

Last October I was forced to confront that cold reality we face as finite creatures. It came in the form of a car accident; its victim, my best friend. The news came on a sunny Friday afternoon in Virginia Beach. At the time, I was six weeks away from completing a long training pipeline before leaving for my first duty station in Japan with the Marine Corps. A week later, however, I found myself standing at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery, mourning Jason’s death.

That Christmas I went to visit Jason’s grave while home on leave. After a painful but necessary hour at his tombstone, I gathered myself for the drive home, when it occurred to me that my grandfather Duncan was also buried at the same cemetery. I made my way to the front office where I searched his name, “Duncan Bennett,” on the cemetery’s registry. I had never visited his gravesite since his death nearly twenty years ago, but seeing his journey etched in stone brought his story to life in a completely new way for me: “World War II. Korea. Vietnam.” It reminded me of the man my grandfather was, and the legacy that I share. In addition to blood, we share a name—Duncan being my middle name. “Duncan” is of Scottish origin and can mean a combination of “chieftain” and “battle,” or more simply, “warrior” in Gaelic.

A warrior he was.

My grandparents met in 1951 over Thanksgiving dinner at the home of a family who took in all sorts of stray children. My grandmother, Dagney, was just fourteen and a foster child; my grandfather was twenty-nine and enlisted in the Air Force. The next year, the two were married and headed to France to an overseas duty station that he requested for the distinct purpose of removing my grandmother from a troubled family situation.

Upon completing his tour in Dreux at some point between 1962 and 1963, the family moved to Travis Air Force Base briefly, returned to Europe for another four years, then again moved to Travis. Duncan soon departed for a two-year tour to Vietnam, where he served as a Sikorsky MH-53 helicopter mechanic and conducted combat search-and-rescue missions. My grandfather returned from Vietnam physically unscathed but emotionally scarred from witnessing some distinct horrors. He fought those demons the rest of his life.

During and after his years in Vietnam, my grandfather fought in a different manner on his family’s behalf. From Vietnam he wrote a series of letters to my mother that she says carried her through those years her father was physically absent. Not long after his return, my aunt – the eldest of my grandfather’s three daughters – announced her desire to enroll at UC Berkeley, a hotbed of anti-war activism in the 1960s and ‘70s. When Duncan was asked how he could tolerate his daughter’s lack of loyalty to him and his profession, he responded, “Her right to disagree is what I fought to protect.” My own experience from my grandfather’s later years in life recalls his incredibly powerful hugs, our seemingly endless games of checkers, and getting to play with the cane he depended on after suffering a severe stroke.

It was sometime after his stroke that he wrote another letter. This time, however, the letter was addressed to me. My mother discovered it among her possessions earlier this year. In it, Grandpa encourages me, his five-year-old grandson, to keep up his good conduct at school. It is written with his characteristic, nearly illegible handwriting, the envelope’s address suddenly halted before completion. One can assume that just writing the letter was a tiring effort after his stroke. Nevertheless, his words testify to the character of a man seeking to influence and be involved in his young grandson’s life in a meaningful way.

Out of a place of loss and brokenness I have discovered a part of my incredible heritage, and how “Duncan the Warrior” was a man who fought on behalf of his nation and his family.

Hanging on the wall in my bedroom is a photograph of my grandfather in his service uniform, lean and healthy, wearing thin wire glasses, his cover slightly tilted, as was the style then. His photograph reminds me of the far-reaching effects—even spanning generations—that imperfect men can have when they remain steadfast in their endeavors. It also reminds me of the warrior’s call to protect and cultivate those things worthy of defense, and that there are still things worth defending. Taped to the back of his photo I keep these words, best attributed to John of Salisbury in 1159:

We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.

J.D. Canclini

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