A grieving Steven R. Woods is sitting, slumped forward, sobbing inconsolably. He hugs to his chest a folded American flag that earlier had covered the casket in front of him.
In 1964 his father—Army Staff Sgt. Lawrence Woods—was shot down during a resupply mission near Bu Prang, Vietnam. It took nearly 50 years to find his remains. On March 21 of this year those remains were put into a casket and returned to the earth as a funeral service was held for him at Arlington National Cemetery.
Three rifle volleys were fired to honor Woods and seven other young men killed during the mission. As Woods’ son accepted the folded flag, a U.S. Air Force band played. And then clutching that flag and a framed picture of his father, the younger Woods sat in his chair and surrendered to the pain and grief of having lost his father a half century ago.
Judging from the picture, Steven Woods would have been six or eight when his father was killed—old enough to have early memories of his father, young enough to need him for decades to come.
Gone was the man whose heroic work would take place not on a battlefield or at 24,000 feet above ground but under the roof of a home. Steven Woods lost the father and mentor he was just coming to know. He lost the man who would teach him how to field ground balls. How to play basketball on the driveway or schoolyard court. How to catch and gut a fish. How to respect the girls he would be drawn to. How to respect the men he would grow up with as peers or bosses. He lost the most important man in his life, the one whose love mattered.
Growing up, boys learn hundreds of lessons from their fathers on the paths to becoming men. When to hold the cards life gives you, and when to fold them and start over. They learn confidence by the competence their fathers help instill in them, from things as simple as how to change a bike tire to how to swim, to ski, to excel at school. They learn about God, in ways that are usually subtle and often unspoken. They learn about sex. About responsibility, accountability and authority.
Steven Woods’ sister Lisa lost her father too. If he could have been as heroic in fatherhood as he was in his military service, he would have been the man to reflect back to her her beauty, her lovability, her worthiness. Through his simple acts of attention and affection he would have helped his daughter internalize the lifelong beliefs, “I am attractive. I am interesting. I am worthy. Men are my equal. I don’t need their approval. I belong with them…”
He would have been there for her when she had problems with boys, when she was asked to a dance for the first time, when she had her heart broken. He would have been there during the drama and fury of adolescence. He would have been there to share the burden of disciplining his daughter and son.
Steven Woods and his sister lost holiday celebrations and birthdays with their father. They lost a part of themselves that they never became because their father was gone.
In a world of graphic and gruesome media coverage, the picture of Steven Woods shakes you to the core.
The raw enormity of that loss and grief is reflected in the anguish on his son’s face at his father’s memorial service. His anguish tells far more than the statistics—that 24 million American children live without their biological fathers. That growing up without a father significantly increases one’s chances of committing rape, committing suicide, or ending up incarcerated. The rates of poverty, mental illness, violence, dropping out of school, drug abuse and more are related to growing up without a father.
Mass culture almost trivializes fatherhood. It doesn’t confer status on those who dedicate their lives to it. It doesn’t translate into promotions at work, and in fact hinder careers. Fathers who insist on living balanced lives often fall behind co-workers who abandon their families to 70-hour workweeks.
There are still 1,642 Vietnam War veterans who remain unaccounted for. Those casualties didn’t end in southeast Asia. Nor are they ending in Syria, Iraq, throughout Africa and everywhere else in the world where men are dying by the thousands, filling the prisons, or simply walking away from the sons and daughters they brought into existence.
This is a day to remember Lawrence Woods, and the ordinary, decent men who do their best when no one has prepared them for the extraordinary demands of fatherhood. And just as well, it’s a day to appreciate the enormity of the demands placed upon the daughters who grow up to be single mothers, far too often called upon to fill the shoes left empty by the men who chose to leave or who were taken too early.