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Copied from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Search: June 17, 2000
Presented here for information purposes only.

Children honor the dads who never came home
by Bob Dart - Cox Washington Bureau

Washington -- It's Father's Day weekend at the Wall.

The sons and daughters of the men whose names are chiseled on the polished black granite are themselves grown now. They bring their own children to hear stories about grandfathers they will never hug.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial has always been a place of healing. So the grown-up sons and daughters weep and laugh and embrace each other and share memories of fatherless childhoods.

Army Capt. William A. Branch's daughter, Jen, was a toddler when he was killed at Dau Tieng in 1970. Ever since, folks have told her, "Oh, you were only 2. You didn't know him." Was it somehow better that she had no memories of her father? Didn't they know that left an emptiness inside her?

Branch was buried at Fort Benning, Ga., on a summer day 30 years ago. His wife came home from the funeral and saw their daughter astride a riding toy and thought, she will never understand the kind of man her father was.

Mom was mistaken.

It's true that her dad and Vietnam were rarely mentioned when Jen was growing up in Atlanta. Her mother, a schoolteacher, remarried and there were strains enough within a blended family without a child's painful questions. But there was still that emptiness within.

So at 18, she followed in her father's footsteps to North Georgia College, a Dahlonega school with a military heritage. Attending on a scholarship named for her father, she walked across drill fields where he had marched and searched old yearbooks for his pictures. She talked to professors who had taught him and to his classmates who came to reunions. Many wore uniforms --- their chests bearing a "fruit salad" of medals --- and she wondered what career path her father would have followed into middle age.

Back in Atlanta, she searched an attic and found an Army footlocker packed with precious memories. There were cartoons Bill Branch had drawn as a boy growing up in Fitzgerald, in South Georgia. He was always a gifted artist. As a battalion intelligence officer in Vietnam, he crafted wonderfully detailed maps. She found a treasure trove of letters. He had written her mother every day during two combat tours.

There was one to his daughter: "Darling Jennifer, I love you little girl. I keep your picture with me always. I'm coming home to you soon and I'll make up for lost time. I'm going to be the best daddy around."

Capt. Branch's little girl is nearly 32 now --- about two years older than he was when he was killed. Jen Branch Denard is married and lives near Fort Lauderdale, Fla. She has come to the Wall on Father's Days past, but this time she brought her mother for a first visit. Wars cannot kill relationships, the daughter says.

"These men did not die for nothing," she promised. "Their spirit is living on in their children and their grandchildren and it will live on forever. Our responsibility is to make sure they are not forgotten."

Among the 58,209 Americans lost during the Vietnam War, about a third were fathers. Their deaths left more than 20,000 children to feel hollow on Father's Day. A decade ago, some of those who lost their dads in Vietnam organized a group called Sons and Daughters in Touch. It has grown to more than 3,000 members. They quickly learned they share a unique bond.

This is their fourth Father's Day gathering at the Wall. The most recent was in 1997. About 1,000 sons, daughters, grandchildren and widows are expected for a long weekend of reunion and remembrance. They will be joined by Vietnam veterans to provide answers to the lingering question: "What was my daddy like?"

Nearing his 34th birthday, Sgt. 1st Class Marshall Robertson was like a father to the 18- and 19-year-olds who made up his infantry platoon. But after his leading them for months, Robertson's combat tour was ending. He was pulled out of the field in late August 1969.

Then word came to the base camp that the platoon leader, an experienced officer, had been evacuated on a medical helicopter out. A green lieutenant would be taking the platoon into a hell called Que Son Valley.

Before boarding the chopper back to battle, the platoon sergeant wrote his wife to explain why he had volunteered to return: "My dear darling . . .

"Sometimes a man just has to do what he must. Please forgive me for this but my men have a brand new officer. I just have to go out there and help them out. I know that you will not understand but try to see my side of it. . . . My love, if I should die over here, it will not be for my country or this country but it will be for my boys. . .

"Tell the kiddies that I love them and, if this is my last letter, please remember me."

The Robertson kiddies were 10, 9, 7 and 6 when the word came that their dad had been killed in combat while with his platoon. The government mailed a widow's check to the 29-year-old woman faced with raising four children alone. But the Army sent no psychologists to help the family handle their grief.

Anti-war sentiment was growing across the country. The Robertson family felt isolated. The message they perceived: "Your dad is dead. Bury him and go on."

Two decades would pass before they read of their father's heroism in "Death Valley," a book by Keith William Nolan. Patricia Wilson, the second-oldest of the Robertson children, called the author and got the names of men from their father's platoon.

Not knowing whether he would even remember her father, she phoned that raw young lieutenant whom Sgt. Robertson had volunteered to help and said, "I'm Marshall Robertson's daughter." There was a silence on the other end of the line. Then sobs.

"Your father was truly a professional," he told her. For 20 years, he had borne a burden of guilt about the sergeant who died helping him carry out his first mission. The daughter assured him that the family does not blame the survivors.

Patricia Robertson Wilson is an advertising executive in Atlanta. She and her three siblings and their mother will be at the Wall on Father's Day. And they're bringing Robertson's eight grand- children.

"Growing up, Father's Day was very, very sad for us," she said. "But this is going to be a celebration."

They will celebrate the life of their dad. And they will remember him.

Growing up in Tampa, Ken Mobley never knew any other kids whose dads had been killed in Vietnam. And he never talked about his own father, Army Chief Warrant Officer Warren H. Mobley, who died in a plane crash over Can Tho. It was one of those strange things that happen in war. His dad was a crew chief flying in a small, fixed-wing plane when it collided in midair with a South Vietnamese army helicopter on Nov. 24, 1970.

When it happened, Ken Mobley was 10; his brother was 6. Afterward, their childhood Father's Days were endured, never enjoyed.

But that was before Ken started coming to the Wall. He has been to all the Father's Day reunions of Sons and Daughters in Touch. "It was amazing to suddenly meet this group of people who had so much in common," he explained. "It's a unique group."

Often they gather into small "sharing circles," a dozen or so sons and daughters guided by a counselor and perhaps a Vietnam vet. Emotions pent up inside them during a childhood of repressed grief and anger are sometimes released as they share feelings known only to those whose fathers never came home from Vietnam.

The faces behind the names on the Wall are forever young. Increasingly, their offspring are older. It has been 25 years since the fall of Saigon.

Mobley was 32 when he died. So all through his own life, Ken Mobley would compare his milestones with those of his dad. But when the son turned 33, the comparisons ended. "There was no more road map," he recalled. "It was a real wake-up call."

He is a husband and father himself now. He sells automotive classified advertising for The Tampa Tribune. His wife, Rita, and daughters Ilana, 9, and Sarah, 4, will be with him at the Wall on Sunday.

After all, it's Father's Day.

Bob Dart is a Vietnam veteran and father of two.