by Connie Vandeman Jeffery—
The year 1969 wasn’t about Woodstock or the moon landing, although I remember the latter event in great detail. We watched it live on television—the Apollo 11 landing and then Neal Armstrong’s famous words as he stepped on the moon’s surface: “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” I watched my dad wipe tears from his eyes and my mom sit spellbound in the rented trailer on Fenwick Island, Delaware, where we were vacationing that July. I was 13 years old and it didn’t get much better than a vacation at the beach and watching history unfold on live television. For me, though, 1969 was about learning to play the guitar, wishing I was Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary, and riding my horse, Nellie. And Vietnam—‘69 will always be about Vietnam.
Richard M. Nixon became president in 1969, and while Vietnam seemed like someone else’s war, it soon became our war, too, when my brother Bobby was drafted. Having a brother in Vietnam brought its own kind of anxiety to our family. I prayed for his safety every night and wrote letters to him and helped Mom with the care packages. He was seven years my senior and the closest brother I had. George, my oldest brother, got married and left home when I was three. Ronnie was 14 years older than me; following a complete nervous breakdown, he lived in a state hospital near our home. Bobby was all I had. He was more serious and grown-up when he came back from boot camp and headed quite quickly to Vietnam—which seemed like such a scary place. Bobby was a medic in 1969— right at the height of U. S. troop involvement. I just wanted him to come home safely.
I cried a lot about the war and about Bobby being gone. I strummed the three chords I had learned on the guitar and sang my Peter, Paul and Mary songs: “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man? And how many seas must a white dove sail before she sleeps in the sand? And how many times must the cannonballs fly before they’re forever banned? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” And that’s where I thought the answers were—blowing in the wind, just out of my grasp.
When the telegram arrived, hand-delivered by two uniformed men, I watched in slow motion as my dad accepted the black bordered envelope and ripped it open with mom at his side. I stood in the background, too afraid to move. When their eyes lit upon the words “not seriously wounded,” they actually fell to their knees right there at the front door and wept tears of joy. I didn’t know what to feel. Elated, of course. Bobby was coming home, and he’d only had some shrapnel in his leg. He would be at Walter Reed Hospital for several weeks. It was the best possible news.
But I was numb, too. So many conflicting emotions would follow. I was so proud of Bobby. He’d served his country, made it through with only the most minor of physical wounds, but he was so different when he returned. Something had changed. He would never talk about the war. And he wasn’t proud of his service, Purple Heart and all. He was broken, but I was too young to know why. I had Nellie, the horse, who listened to all my mixed feelings, and I had my music. I also had that simple childlike faith that would only later become something solid—my faith at age 13 felt mushy, like Jell-O. I wanted to believe everything would work out. That Bobby would be normal again. That Ronnie would be healed of schizophrenia. That Romans 8:28 was true and all things really do “work together for good to them that love God.” It just didn’t feel as if my prayers were being answered.
I was just as surprised as my parents when Bobby re-enlisted, got married, and moved to San Antonio, Texas, stationed at Fort Sam Houston. He would live in the South the rest of his life—Texas and Georgia. And he would struggle for the rest of his life with the addiction issues that had begun, I later learned, in Vietnam. Marriage, a beautiful daughter, a divorce, remarriage, a series of jobs as a car salesman for different dealerships, buying a home in Georgia, losing that home to foreclosure, two grandchildren he adored, then cancer, and a too-early death at age 60. I am grateful the story of Bobby’s life doesn’t end there. Bobby, on his deathbed, found the one Answer that wasn’t blowing in the wind. It turned out to be real, tangible, and solid.
In October of 2009, when we learned Bobby didn’t have long to live, my oldest brother George and I flew to Georgia to visit him in the hospital. We would fly back just a few weeks later for his funeral. In between the two visits, Bobby and I talked on the phone while he was still lucid. He told me he wanted to be “saved.” I explained that he just needed to “call on the name of the Lord” and he would be saved. He’d see our parents again. We’d all be together again. And he did call on the name of the Lord. He prayed a simple prayer asking for forgiveness and surrendering himself, perhaps for the first time in his life, to Jesus.
When I sat with his wife, daughter and family, our brother, and a few friends at his simple, sweet service at a military cemetery in Milledgeville, Georgia, I was filled with such gratitude for the gift of Bobby to the world. And for the gift of all the wounded warriors who fought and survived the atrocities of wars. And for those who didn’t survive. I was taken back to 1969, to the girl singing, “How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky? How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry? And how many deaths will it take ‘til he knows that too many people have died?”
I know now, 50 years later, that the answer is not just blowing in the wind. For me, it is my faith, stronger and more solid with each passing year. The soundtrack of my life still includes the great folk songs and ballads of 1969, but it was a different song that I sang at Bobby’s service, standing next to his flag-draped coffin: “For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”
Connie Vandeman Jeffery is the host of All God’s People, a weekly short video series highlighting the people and ministries of the Pacific Union Conference, and has had a long career in media.