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Children Still Mourn Fathers Killed in Vietnam

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 10, 1998 – She can't help it.

 

Even though Cindy Rheinheimer's memories of her father are vague, she chokes up and tears stream down her face nearly every time she talks about him. She was 3 when her father, Army Cpl. Richard Lee Sanders, died in Vietnam on Nov. 24, 1967.

 

She was a teen-ager before she learned her father received the Silver Star and Bronze Star medals for bravery. Sanders, a medic, had been tending a wounded soldier when the man freaked out and bolted. Sanders tried to catch him, but both ran into a line of enemy fire and were killed.

 

After years of longing to meet other people who had experienced similar losses, Rheinheimer's answer came in 1992 through an act of fate.

 

She was watching a late night news story encouraging people to visit a traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Bakersfield, Calif. This road exhibit is a small replica of the Washington, D.C., memorial on the National Mall. "They talked about having information about Sons and Daughters in Touch, which I'd never heard of before," she said.

 

"I'd never met anyone whose dad had died in Vietnam," said Rheinheimer, who now lives in Cincinnati. "So I went to the traveling wall. The veterans introduced her to another woman whose father died in Vietnam. There was instant camaraderie, and they met more than 15 others like themselves that weekend. "We started raising money -- the veterans helped us," she said. "We sent 30 'kids' from California to the first Father's Day gathering in Washington in 1992."

 

It had been raining two days before that Father's Day. The rain mingled with the salty tears of about 25 sons and daughters who'd come from across the country to pay their first visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There they found their fallen fathers' names etched on the shiny black granite.

 

"It was dark and raining and the wall was chilly, cold. But when I touched it, it felt warm -- like a comforting hug," a weeping Rheinheimer recalled.

 

The sons and daughters gingerly ambled from panel to panel searching for their fathers' names, she said. "Everybody cried, lots of crying, lots of hugging. But it was OK, because we were there together -- that helped," she added.

 

The Sons and Daughters in Touch returned to Washington for Father's Day 1993 and 1997 after deciding not to meet every year because of the expenses and difficulty of coordinating the gathering. Rheinheimer said the next Sons and Daughters in Touch visit to the memorial is scheduled for Father's Day 2000.

 

Sons and Daughters in Touch has swelled to more than 1,500 members today. Its aim is to locate, unite and provide support to the children of those who died or remain missing from the Vietnam War. Members also strive to promote healing via networking, special projects and awareness of the historical and emotional legacy of war, Rheinheimer said.

 

In addition to sons and daughters, membership includes other family members and fellow veterans dedicated to similar goals, she said.

 

The common ground is that their fathers are memories. Rheinheimer said her parents were divorced and remarried before her father went to Vietnam. So she still had parents even when her real dad was killed.

 

She said many children reached a crisis point when they became older than their fathers had been at death, she noted. "A lot of kids have memories about their dads because they were older," Rheinheimer said. "I don't have those memories because I was too young when he died.

 

"He wasn't there when I got married," said the mother of 10-year-old twin daughters. "He didn't teach me to ride a bike. He wasn't there when my kids were born. I miss him because I never knew him."

 

Rheinheimer's most treasured possessions are letters from her father that her maternal grandmother showed her when she was in high school. Her grandmother had stored the letters for years in her cedar chest. Her father had sent a letter, birthday card and little ball for her third birthday in 1967.

 

"My mom gave the stuff to my grandmother to put up for me," she said. "I guess she thought it was a good time to give them to me. That's what prompted me to start asking questions about my dad." So Rheinheimer went to her dad's family too.

 

Her other grandmother always cried whenever her son's name was mentioned. "Nobody wanted to make grandma cry, but I did that day because I wanted to know more about my dad," Rheinheimer said. The paternal family had a scrapbook, letters, cards and copies of medal citations.

 

"Reading the letters was the first time in my life my dad was talking to me, and that made him a real person," she said. "And I was old enough to understand things a little better. The letters helped me put together some kind of chronology as to where he was and when."

 

That birthday letter in September 1967 is her most treasured possession. "He talked about missing me, loving me and wanting to be home for my next birthday," she said. "He was hoping he didn't spoil me too much when he was home on leave before going to Vietnam. I must have been with him most of the time he was home.

 

"It's funny," Rheinheimer said, "He's writing this letter to a 3-year-old. The first page is to me and the rest is about Vietnam and the firefight and people getting blown away -- not something you'd write to a 3-year-old.

 

"He always signed his letters, 'your loving father,'" she said, sobbing.  She compiled a picture album of her father and shows it when she speaks at gatherings of the Vietnam Veterans of America and other veterans organizations. She tells them how his death affects her, and she seeks out those who might have known her father.

 

"It's like pieces of a puzzle," she said. "I've got this big puzzle and everybody is putting the pieces together to give me this image. My grandma, grandpa and aunt can tell me about my father, but some of the veterans may have known him and know what it was like in Vietnam."

 

She said she tells her story because there are still sons and daughters who have never met another person whose father died in Vietnam.

 

"Talking to someone who really understands helps a lot," Rheinheimer said. "I don't have my own memories, so I have to see through other people's eyes. There are other kids in the same boat. All of our stories have a common thread.

 

"I've gotten better," she said, wiping tears. "When I went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1992, all I did was cry. I remember my husband, Michael, walking through the living room asking me, 'Are you ever going to stop crying?' I just said, 'I don't know.'

 

"I still choke up. I'm still on a journey toward healing, but I've come a long way," she said. "I think I'll eventually get a sense of closure, but I'll still miss the fact that I never knew my dad."

 

For more information, call Sons and Daughters in Touch at

 1-800-984-9994, or write to:

Sons and Daughters in Touch

PO Box 1596

Arlington, VA 22210

The group has a Web site at http://members.aol.com/SDITNatl/index.html.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageCindy Rheinheimer stands before a huge American flag and holds an album with a picture of her father, Army Cpl. Richard Lee Sanders, who died in Vietnam on Nov. 24, 1967, when she was 3. Rudi Williams  
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