Living with the mystery

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Charles Featherstone

It was a tough Veterans Day for me this year.

This was the first Veterans Day in a number of years I wasn’t able to call my dad, Charles L. Featherstone. He died suddenly and unexpectedly in January.

My dad was, for much of my life, something of a mystery, rarely revealing much about himself. And he didn’t leave much behind in the apartment he’d lived in for more than 20 years in San Bernardino, Calif.

So I’m stuck with the mystery.

Upon graduating from Washington State University in 1965, he earned a commission in the U.S. Army. He told me once he wanted more than anything to be a career Army officer, and at the bottom of big trunk, I found the remains of his military career — citations, medals, transcripts, copies of letters and orders. He never talked about his year in Vietnam until he got much older, opening up a little about the war, about what he did and what he saw.

He even said he wanted to write about Vietnam, and I encouraged him. But he never did. At least I couldn’t find anything.

My dad’s military career derailed sometime in the early 1970s. He said once that at one point in 1975, he’d become “the ranking captain in the Army,” utterly and completely unpromotable.

However, going through his documents, I learned a little something about his time in Vietnam, and an effort to save his Army career.

My dad was the commander of Battery A, 2nd Battalion of the 13th Artillery in early 1968, stationed in Phuoc Long Province, about 85 miles north of Saigon. During a series of search and destroy operations by the 101st Airborne Division in January and February, my father’s unit provided fire support during a North Vietnamese and Vietcong attack on Song Be Airbase.

“I would like to express the sincere appreciation of the 101st Airborne Division Artillery and the 101st Airborne Division for the outstanding professional fire support rendered by your unit during Operation San Angelo and the subsequent defense of Song Be,” wrote Col. Richard S. Pohl.

“Congratulations for a job well done,” he added.

I remember photos of a much younger version of my dad, dressed in green jungle fatigues, standing next to a big howitzer, surrounded by sandbags. He would not talk much about those photos, except to describe how they dealt with the rats, or how loud the artillery guns were.

And I never found them, those photos. But this explains a little what was happening then, in dry Army type on yellowed photostats.

My father earned a Bronze Star in Vietnam, though the citation actually says it is for “meritorious achievement in ground operations against hostile forces” for the year from September 1967 to September 1968.

In late 1975, when he learned my father was not going to be promoted past captain, Maj. Gen. Julius W. Becton, Jr. — who would later go on to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the Reagan Administration — wrote a letter on my father’s behalf in a valiant attempt to save my father’s military career.

Becton, who served in the 101st at the time and was commander of the 1st Calvary Division in 1975, said that because of my father’s actions, “the Tet offensive of ’68 did not occur in this provincial capital.”

Hyperbole, probably, but heartfelt. “Based on my knowledge of Captain Featherstone’s manner of performance in 1968, I would be happy to have him as an artillery major in the FIRST TEAM now,” Becton wrote.

(A Google search revealed that Col. Pohl died in June 1968, his name now carved into one of the Vietnam Memorial’s basalt panels. Lt. Gen. Becton is still alive and well and living in Virginia.)

But the general’s letter didn’t help. My father left the Army in early 1977 and took a job as a project manager with General Dynamics in Pomona. And when they downsized him at the end of the Cold War in 1991, he eventually found his calling — teaching remedial math and coaching girls junior varsity basketball at Eisenhower High School in Rialto, Calif.

“I have no idea why. I never understood it,” he told me a few years ago about the failure of his military career.

I think I know. My dad was never good at playing politics. He took everything he did seriously, but he could never make the institution’s purpose his own. He believed that doing his job is enough when, sadly, it often isn’t. I’m like that. So at least I come by it honestly.

He loved teaching and he loved coaching more than anything he’d ever done. That, and not soldiering, is what he was truly called to do.

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