Thursday, March 23, 2000

Vietnam legacy: Growing up fatherless

Next generation tries to heal wounds

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cindy Rheinheimer has come to know her father by meeting Vietnam veterans he served with.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
        MILFORD — For the longest time, Cindy Rheinheimer had only one image of her father. Cpl. Richard Sanders went to Vietnam as an Army medic in August 1967. He was 22. He was killed in action three months later while treating a wounded soldier. Cindy was 3 years old.

        “He's sitting in a green chair and flicking a cigarette lighter that looked like a cannon,” said Ms. Rheinheimer, 35, of Milford.

        Then in high school, her grandparents gave her a box of her father's belongings, including photographs of him in Vietnam and a birthday card and letter he mailed for her third birthday, just weeks before his death.

        Several years later, when she got involved with Sons and Daughters in Touch, a national support group for children whose fathers died in Vietnam, Ms. Rheinheimer finally begin to grieve.

Cpl. Richard Sanders
(Cindy's Web site)
        Today, as national secretary for the Arlington, Va.,-based group, she's trying to reach the remaining 17,000 adults who lost their fathers in Vietnam and help them find the peace she has won. As a board member, she's helping to organize the group's fourth Father's Day celebration at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, June 15-18.

        Her involvement has helped Ms. Rheinheimer in many ways. She now knows about her father's life — and death. She has met hundreds of other children in the same emotional place, where she once thought she was “the only one.” She told her twin daughters, Kirstie and Briana, now 12, about their grandfather.

  • What: The fourth Sons and Daughters in Touch Father's Day celebration for children whose fathers were killed in Vietnam.
  The 10-year-old, non-profit group is a support and remembrance organization for those children. Other Father's Day events were held in 1992, 1993 and 1997. The group is hoping to bring together 1,000 children and 1,000 veterans for the event this year, which would be its largest.
  • When: June 15-18 (Father's Day is June 18).
  • Where: Washington, D.C.
  • Miscellaneous: Events include daily “sharing circles,” trips to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for children and grandchildren of deceased troops, historical seminars, large group picture, picnic at the memorial and solemn Father's Day tribute.
  Seminars will be led by Vietnam veteran and ABC News correspondent Jack Smith and Joe Galloway, author of We Were Soldiers Once, and Young.
  An estimated 20,000 Americans were left fatherless by the war. The organization has been able to contact 3,000; 1,500 are members.
  • Information: Sons and Daughters in Touch, P.O. Box 1596, Arlington, Va., 22210. (800) 984-9994.
        “He was brave,” Kirstie Rheinheimer said.

        “Courageous,” said sister Briana. “And hard-working.”

        Ms. Rheinheimer has talked with veterans who served with her father.

        “Instant family,” she said. “It's like, "Your dad was my brother, so I'm your uncle, and you've got a lot of uncles.'”

        She speaks at schools about her father and other veterans. She joined the Clermont County chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America in 1997 and become involved in MIA and other veterans issues.

        Cliff Riley of Milford, past president of the Clermont VVA chapter, served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1969.

        “Most of us who came back have survivor's guilt,” said Mr. Riley, 53. “If you left first, you told guys you'd look them up when they got home. Then you find out they didn't make it. When you meet the sons and daughters, they call us "Uncle.' We're family. We're taking care of them for their dads.”

        The Clermont VVA has paid for Ms. Rheinheimer to go to conferences, board meetings and other group events.

        She led a committee that brought the Moving Wall — a portable, half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — to a Northern Kentucky mall in July.

        The experiences have changed her. Ms. Rheinheimer flies the U.S. and POW-MIA flags from a pole in front of her Milford home.

        And she has learned much.

        “Patriotism, freedom isn't free,” she said. “These are things worth fighting for. It's important to pass that on to future generations and let them know what my dad and other guys did in Vietnam.”

        Her participation in Sons and Daughters in Touch made all those things possible.

        The off-limits nature of the topic as children is common for Sons and Daughters members, she said. In her family's Bakersfield, Calif., home, attempts to talk about her father always evoked awkward silence or tears from relatives.

        “We didn't grieve. We were in denial,” she said. “All I knew was, "Daddy's in heaven.'”

        At 13, her mother let her take her father's surname. Kathy Sanders had been divorced from Cindy's father and remarried before he was drafted.

        Then her grandmother gave her the box of her father's possessions.

        Inside was a Fisher-Price toy he had given her at his last Christmas. And the letter and card he sent from Vietnam for her third birthday, Sept. 27, 1967.

        Dear Daughter, How is my baby? Fine, I hope. Well, Honey, you're 3 years old now and next year when Daddy gets home you'll almost be 4 and a big girl.

        The card's cover read: Daughters are like flowers.

        “That started to make him real for me,” she said.

        Cpl. Sanders was a medic with the 9th Infantry Division. He was killed Nov. 24, 1967 — the day after Thanksgiving — when his company was ambushed by the Viet Cong near Bien Hoa. Cpl. Sanders, who received the Bronze and Silver stars posthumously, rushed to the aid of several fallen troops. He then went back to treat another soldier who had been knocked unconscious by the initial burst of fire. Both were mortally wounded.

        Despite the pride that her father's sacrifice spurred inside, Ms. Rheinheimer felt alone through the rest of high school, then college at the University of California-Bakersfield, where she earned a bachelor's in business administration in 1986.

        It wasn't until the Moving Wall came to Bakersfield in 1992 that she started to heal. It was there that she etched her father's name on paper and learned about Sons and Daughters in Touch, which had been started two years earlier by Tony Cordero of Los Angeles, the son of an Air Force navigator who was lost over Laos in 1965.

        “Sons and daughters are all at different places emotionally,” said Ms. Rheinheimer, whose husband was transferred to the Tristate by his employer in 1997. “I remember at the time, I was always crying. I didn't know if I could ever quit crying.”

        Later in 1992, she visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Wash ington for the organization's first Father's Day celebration. She went back in 1993 and wrote her first Father's Day card. She left it at the Wall beneath his name.

        “The other kids, they are some of my best friends,” said Ms. Rheinheimer, who works as a teacher's aide in Milford schools. “They've helped me deal with the baggage and become a whole person for the first time. I was gradually able to accept what happened to him.”

        She took her daughters to the Wall in 1997. There will be another special grandchildren's trip to the memorial at this year's Father's Day event.

        She created a Web site at dedicated to her father. It's attracted responses from men who knew Cpl. Sanders in Vietnam.

        Last month, she received an e-mail from Stuart C. MacKenzie, a former 9th Infantry medic who lives in Chinook, Mont. He is copying home movies he had from Vietnam that her father is in.

        It is an honor but with sorrow to communicate with you about your father. ... Even though it has been over 30 years, I have a clear image of him with his mustache. Your father was a very brave and courageous man who made the ultimate sacrifice of coming to the aid of his fellow soldiers. I will never forget him and his heroic actions.

        These days, as Sons and Daughters' secretary, she checks the group's toll-free message line each evening. She calls and writes adult children who want information. Here and across the country.

        Ms. Rheinheimer understands where they're coming from.

        “People ask how you can miss someone you didn't know, someone you didn't have a relationship with,” she said. “It's missing what you didn't have. It's not having your father to give you away at your wedding. It's not having him there to teach you how to dance. It's all the father-daughter things you miss.

        “It takes time. It's hard. But then you're able to stand up and say, "My dad died in Vietnam, and I'm proud of him.'”

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