We talk to a local author who writs about her journey into her father's past after his death.
June 12, 2012 1:09 p.m.
Lucia Viti, author Dr. Tom's War.
Related Story: Learning About A Father Through His Past
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. As father's day approaches. It seems a good time to ask, how much do you really know about your dad? Some men can be reluctant to talk much about their lives, even when they have incredible stories to tell. That's what my guest found out years after her father died of a box of family memorabilia started her on a journey in which he discovered an aspect of her dad she never knew and learned about a war she was too young to remember. Lucia Viti lives in Carlsbad, her book is called doctor Tom's war, a daughter's journey. Welcome to the show.
VITI: Thank you so much. It's I pleasure to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Let's start out with some basics about your dad. Your family lived in New York. Did you come from a family of doctors?
VITI: Yes. My grandfather, doctor Felis Viti, was a physician, and my father followed suit. I also have a brother who's an eye doctor as well. So it was a family tradition to be involved in medicine. My father loved medicine.
CAVANAUGH: Now, growing up, what did you been your father's tour in Vietnam?
VITI: I knew very little if anything about my father's tour. I was approximately 6 years old when he left. And I knew that he was away in a war. I didn't basically understand the politics of the war. He was away from anWA, 25†miles southwest of deNANG, in the republic of south Vietnam. He was there for are months, and came back and served in queens, New York. But it was never discussed. The Vietnam war wasn't something that was discussed at the dinner table, it wasn't discussed in basically school. I had an understanding of his life as a physician. But it was very little in correlation with the Vietnam war.
CAVANAUGH: And this part of his life, this 13 months of his life, when you were a young child Snot something that you talked about with him or he brought up in casual conversation? It was sort of locked away.
VITI: Yes, it was locked away. But I think that that was true for most Vietnam veterans when they came home. And I found that within the journey of research for doctor Tom's war, daughter's journey, it wasn't something -- the Vietnam veteran when is they came home were not yeased the way their fathers were from the greatest generation.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Following in the footsteps for those who served in World†War†II. They were spat upon, disrespected, called baby killerce. And it was so politically controversial at the time that it just was a discussion that didn't happen. And I was too young in grammar school to have studied it. It was basically a blip on the radar during high school and a blip on the radar in college. So I never really understood the political aspects of it. Only the -- his life as a physician where his mantra was, whenever he did speak about the war was it was the only place he knowledged practice medicine for the sheer sake of medicine.
CAVANAUGH: After 911, you found yourself in New York looking through family memorabilia. How did you happen across this box?
VITI: Well, I literally tripped over it. It was in my brother's attic. It was an old harry and David fruit box. And assuming that it was just more photograph ares, family photographs, I lifted the BOKTS and opened it up, and I found his medals and his bronze as far with the combat V, I found letters from dignitaries from south Vietnam written to him in thanks. I found an article from the New York Times. It was just a Poe puree of information they never knew, and oi suggested that I take it back to Carlsbad with me and see what I could do as far as research. I am a writer by trade, involved in the field of health and fitness, and health and wellness. So this was really out of the box for me. But I sat down with my significant other and discussed really embracing the idea of writing a book. And within this world of Internet, I posted who I was and what I was doing on the second battalion 5th marine website, and the response was so overwhelming that evening that they crashed my inbox.
CAVANAUGH: Let me just make our our listeners are keeping up with the story. Unfortunately your dad died pretty young, in the '80s when he was first years old.
>> Yes, he had a massive heart attack at age 50.
CAVANAUGH: When you saw all this information in this crate, you found out that so much about what your father's service was like. For instance, what year did your father serve? He was a marine, right?
VITI: No, actually he was in the Navy.
VITI: All medical surgeons and corp men are basically Navy.
CAVANAUGH: I didn't know that.
VITI: But when you're attached to a Marine Corps, you bottom a fleet marine coreman, and my father, when you're embedded about the Marines as he was, and the other coremen, you consider yourself a marine am
CAVANAUGH: I see. Ing --.
VITI: But he was actually in the Navy.
CAVANAUGH: So, the people who then crashed your website was marines that were come the battalion in which he served.
VITI: Yes, it was the second batollian fifth marines, but they were marines and coremen. So anyone who knew him, he made such an impression upon him that they were more than happy, more than willing. He was a conduit, he was the key that unlocked the door for many of these men who had discussed with me that they hadn't had in -- some of them in more than 40 years.
CAVANAUGH: What did you learn about the man your father was while he was serving in Vietnam?
VITI: It's funny. A lot of people ask me that. And I was very close to my father so I knew he had a great sense of humor. I knew he was so loving. But I never, because he was so funny all the time, I never even gave him credit for being as brave as he was. He was extremely brave, he was beyond fearless, and even in my book, I questioned was he perhaps a little nuts? And people look at me with a resounding no, no, no, he was just so brave. And I never would have given him that kind of courage or credibility for having that kind of courage.
CAVANAUGH: That's amazing. Now, you have some incredible stories about your dad. Do you have any favorites that you came up with?
VITI: You know, they're all my favorites, some of them stand out more than others. I remember one in particular where my father, who was petrified of flying, I say back in the days whenever he did fly, which was really -- the chances of him ever going on an airplane were slim and none, and when he did, he had a bloody Mary in one hand and a bloody Mary in the other. And he took out more airline insurance than anybody I've ever military. But he actually stole the brigadier general's helicopter from Anwa, the combat base. There was fighting in the valley, and he wasn't happy with the helicopters coming in quickly enough. So he went to the pilot, as the colonel says, sold him a bill of goods, and got to him to transport him to antenna veil, and he himself helped meddy vac the wounded and brought them back to the combat base.
CAVANAUGH: It's so fascinating to me, here's a man you were so close with dearing your growing up, he was like the most important person in your life, really.
VITI: Yes accident he was.
CAVANAUGH: And yet there's this incredibly side to him as this brave, somewhat reckless dare devil, no nonsense, going to get the job done Navy doctor serving in a marine battalion that you had no idea about.
VITI: No. And it was a journey that was as much heart warming as heart wrenching because he had been gone for many years once I started the journey, and the more I got to know this man that I never knew, the more I began to -- if it was ever at all possible, began to miss him even more. And I was so sad they never got to know who this man was as an adult. I longed for him to be here to ask him questions about some of the stories that I have heard. But I honestly think he would have downplayed his bravery, and maybe upplayed the reckless part, or put it in a very humor -- light situation enveloped by humor.
CAVANAUGH: I know that you found out something very significant through talking to the people who knew your dad, and that is the kind of reaction you get with other Vietnam veterans when you ask them to talk about their experiences. Tell us about that.
VITI: It was a little bit overwhelming for me because writing about the Vietnam war, and reading and research about it was very much out of the box of who I am. I'm the creative, wild child, I'm an athlete at heart, I've been involved in health and fitness and wellness my entire life. My entire writing career. So to embrace the war was difficult for me. And when I sat down with these men, I learned early on that the best way to get them to open up was to just basically sit there and listen. Some of them had never told their wives, their sons, their daughters, some of which they told me. So I sat there very attentive. But very unassuming. And the more I would know, I would learn throughout the journey, I learned how to prod them to open up a little bit more. But I also was very respectful of the fact that when they came home, they weren't allowed to share these stories. And that which I learned was sacred ground for some of them. And I knew how to gear them into trusting me that their secrets were safe with me. But their journey was just as important to me as my father's journey was.
CAVANAUGH: I think it's so interesting, one of the big takeaways for you from having these conversations were how young these men were when they went through this experience.
>> Oh, yes. The average age of a first Lt. Was 21 years old. And some of these men were at the time fighting communism, they were in a war charted by president Eisenhower, and president Kennedy, and they were fighting to protect America and Americans' freedoms. So some of them lied to even enlist themselves. So the average age started gonna 16 and 18 for a grunt. The average age for a first Lt. Was 21. Think about the 16 yearlies or 18 year-olds that we have today, and a 21 year-old, and here these men were 11,000†miles away from home in a country that was compete opposite of anything they had ever known, fighting communism.
CAVANAUGH: And that's what got them over there, that idealistic aim.
CAVANAUGH: No matter what became of it, as the war dragged on through the years. You know, as people get ready to celebrate father's day, I'm just wondering what advice you might have for people whose fathers are still with us, and should we all just start asking our family questions so that we can document these things before they pass?
VITI: Yes, but it is -- understanding that it is a very sensitive subject. And it is a very sensitive topic. There were many -- there were times that men would leave the room in tears. And I knew the interview was over. There were questions that I didn't understand the gravity of them until I was told on no uncertain terms. And do I think that we all have a story, especially -- we all have a story. But the men who came from the Vietnam war have a story that was never told because it was never allowed to be told. So yes, I do think that there are many, many stories that are hidden deep, deep in the crevices of the hearts of these veterans, and in sharing their stories, I think they can help us learn how important it is to respect and honor our military.
CAVANAUGH: You say thank them now.
VITI: Oh, absolutely, every day. If my father was alive today, I would thank him every day, I would thank him for the man that he was and the lives he saved.
CAVANAUGH: I have thank you right now. We are out of time. Thank you for coming in and speaking with us.
VITI: Oh, thank you very much, it was a pleasure.