My beloved Daddy was Killed in Action (KIA) on June 7, 1968 in Vietnam- thus, Memorial Day, June 7th, and Father’s Day always felt like a 1, 2,3, gut, heart, soul punch each year. I carefully avoided any Memorial Day events my entire life. Since June of 1968, I have recited the pledge of allegiance with my right hand over my heart and my my left hand behind my back with my index and middle fingers crossed. Even though my dad was career USMC, he was the nurturing parent and we all adored him. He was the embodiment of loving kindness, patience, integrity, strength, passion and a hilarious sense of humor. Needless to say, his death left a huge hole in the fabric of our family soul.
In the summer of 2017, I left Santa Fe, NM and bought a one way ticket to New Zealand. I was planning to immigrate to New Zealand and spend the rest of my life in a monastic setting. I shut down my website of 20 years for Healing Retreats, and gave away all my belongings save my car and some clothes. I went to California to bid family and friends farewell. I made one last trip to my dad’s grave at the Serbian Cemetery in Los Angeles, CA and fully thought I’d never return unless for a family emergency or death.
Three days before I flew to New Zealand, I had coffee with a childhood friend whom I had run into at an event. Because I had joined SDIT (Sons and Daughters in Touch, a private Facebook group for Vietnam Gold Star sons and daughters) I was becoming more at ease with actually speaking about being a Vietnam Gold Star daughter—language that was never used prior. My childhood friend Ken apparently had a passion for documentaries unbeknownst to me. As I was sharing some of the miraculous unfolding of what I thought was my last “Healing Retreat” I led, he suddenly got sparked with an idea to do a documentary about how I had in effect “raised myself from the dead” since my father’s death and used the tools on myself first, then applied them for the healing of others. After our meeting, I sat in my car dumbfounded as God revealed a “movie trailer” vision of how my time in New Zealand would unfold, and it wasn’t at all what I expected… in other words, the New Zealand “plan” was now dust and this “project” with Ken was God’s Will. Both Ken and I had felt the “buzz” that comes when a project clearly has God’s handwriting on it. I didn’t have the courage to share this with anyone at the time, so I went ahead and flew to New Zealand and returned to the USA within two months time. I met with Ken and he simply told me to start writing the story.
Since everyone thought I was still in a far away country, instead of returning to Santa Fe, NM, a friend in El Dorado Hills, CA suggest I come to her home to write the story and be away from any and all distractions. I started writing a week before Christmas and completed the first rough draft by April. A few days before Christmas I took a walk in this new neighborhood after writing all day. I passed a home that was flying the USA flag alongside the POW/MIA flag. The still small voice whispered to me to ring the doorbell and introduce myself. I ignored it and continued walking. I was afraid perhaps that a PTSD Vietnam Vet would not appreciate the intrusion. When the voice repeated itself for the third time I finally surrendered. Taking a deep breath, I rang the doorbell and promptly stepped back, ready to make a mad dash just in case… As the door slowly opened I heard a man speaking on the phone. Oh dear, I had interrupted a phone call. Once the door was fully open and I saw his kind, blue, soulful eyes. I knew I was in no danger at all. He was wondering what I had to sell perhaps, so I said, “I’m sorry to interrupt you but I noticed your flags and I’m a Vietnam Gold Star daughter”. I think that was the first time I had ever uttered those words to a stranger. He was a large husky man with an unassuming demeanor and he very quickly said into his phone, “I have to go, something has come up and I will call you back” and he hung up and came towards me to hug me and asked, “Can you please repeat that?” As we embraced, and I cried, I felt like I was with the brother I never had, but always wanted in our family had suddenly materialized and I was safe, warm, and held in a knowingness about the War like never before.
His name is Don Burns, and his road name is “EZ”, and he certainly embodied kindness, patience and a calm presence. God could not have picked a better brother for my journey. He told me about Run for the Wall (RFTW), which I had never heard of before and I confess, at the time, I thought – what a great pilgrimage these Vets do, but I would never get on the back of a Harley after all these years. He made me promise I would send him an email with my information and my dad’s and I did. He gave me his card and my housemate was astounded when she innocently asked, “how was your walk?” and I tossed his card on the counter for her to see.
I went to the Northern California Run for the Wall lunch the following month and again assured myself that there was absolutely no way I could ever do this for a myriad of reasons: I don’t do well in crowds, I’m too sensitive, I have low back issues, I’m emotionally empathic and I would be in constant overwhelm. The list appeared endless as to why I could never participate. Not to mention that visiting The Wall always seemed to elicit a gigantic inner turmoil of emotions that simply wanted to be acknowledged and simply allowed, but were always politely stuffed back down for fear of upsetting others.
I eventually shared with Ken about meeting Don (EZ) and the RFTW mission. We had no money for our project and just the thought of entertaining the idea of traveling with The Run to participate in its Mission to get to DC seemed absurd. However, the more I simply prayed, it seemed I was being led to participate with RFTW on some level. I attended my second Northern California RFTW lunch with the local group and EZ showed up with a picture of my dad and announced to the group that he would be riding for my dad that year. Bam! The depth of how this landed in my heart is impossible to convey in words, suffice it to say that the purity and soulfulness of it touched me profoundly. And, I noticed I was still terrified of getting on the back of a Harley. It had been 30-years and I had memories of crashes, although no broken bones but I was all too well aware of the inherent dangers of motorcycles.
By the next N. CA lunch meeting, I was feeling at ease with the group and easily embracing the other Vietnam Vets and Gold Stars that were attending, as well as the civilians who support the mission. Ken and I had a phone conversation, surprising me to no end, he simply said, “I don’t know what it is, but we have to be in DC. We have no funding, so let’s just each pay our own way and we’ll figure it out as we go along”. Wow, I truly had no idea Ken was like me, a “jumper”, one who is willing to leap without a parachute, follow the mystery, and not worry about earthly details! I had certainly chosen the right person to do this project with! He said he would drive up in April for the next lunch and interview EZ and me for the project. In the meantime EZ kept mentioning we needed to go for a “ride” so he could see how I handle on a bike. I skillfully kept avoiding this “ride”.
Needing funds to get to DC, I did what I know how to do… I scheduled a weekend retreat for mid-May (that I teach), and that gave me enough funds to purchase my airfare to DC, and then meet-up with the Central Route for Day 10. I would be done teaching the Wednesday prior to Memorial Day, so I’d fly into DC Thursday. It seemed God’s Grace kept leading the way though I still worried about being in crowds and my innate sensitivity. While praying one morning, the inspiration for a “Go Fund Me” to fully cover my remaining hotel costs came. I had never done a Go Fund Me and felt quite wary of it, but I had to surrender yet again. I posted it on Facebook simply stating a Gold Star Daughter was making a pilgrimage to The Wall. I didn’t say it was me, and I simply just let it be. I was stunned to say the least, and with each donation, I found myself bawling. With the exception of one of my dearest friends who is an amazing civilian and “gets” my profound loss, each donation came from others profoundly touched in their own way by the war—a Vietnam Vet started with the first donation and I wept. Next a Gold Star widow, two childhood friends whose dad’s served in Vietnam, but returned home with deep wounds, and then a few Gold Star Vietnam children. They all had already made the supreme sacrifice. I was incredibly touched and it seemed the tears were never going to stop.
EZ had to spoon feed me step-by-step as it was a lot of information to assimilate the details of the RFTW. He told me I would be receiving a ticket to ride through Arlington National Cemetery on Saturday morning, and RFTW is the only group with this permission, and only 400 bikes do this each year with FNG’s on the back. I would be an FNG. He then hinted that it would be good for me to ride with them for some of the journey, and again I worried about my low back issues, being on a bike, being with “this” particular crowd, etc…and I kept resisting. We were raised by our “strict” Marine mother who had forbade us to cry about our dad the day we got the news, the day of his funeral, and basically anytime we began to show emotion about it, so I surmise I was also afraid I might cry, even though on some level, I knew I couldn’t be with a better crowd in which to allow my tears to flow.
In April at our last lunch, I was finally going to jump on the back of the Harley with EZ and the group after our lunch. My specially ordered t-shirt had arrived which had a cross inside a heart and the words, “Semper Fi Daddy” underneath, so I wore my shirt and prayed! I trusted EZ, he was the big brother I had needed since 1968. He filled a “hole” that I didn’t even know existed prior to meeting him. I hopped on the back of his Harley and thought, if we die, I’m good, as truth be told, a part of me has always looked forward to dying since 1968. Ken stood by capturing all of us on video, and as soon as our pack pulled out onto the road, I got “it”. My body was flooded instantly with “the mission”. It suddenly all made absolute perfect sense. Wow. Robert “Old School” Reavis gave me my road name that day. My body flew up a bit when we hit a hard railroad crossing, my helmet strap was flapping in the wind, my earrings and ponytail as well… so “Dangles” was my road name and it fit.
Now of course everything had changed, and I wanted to go “All the Way” but alas my retreat, that I was teaching was planned and full. My heart ached. There was no possible way to change things, so I had to surrender. My flight into DC Thursday wasn’t arriving until 7PM, not enough time to get up to the Central Route lodging. So we planned the next best thing, Ken would show up early Friday at the host hotel where I was staying, and he would drive me west to meet up for the last day of the Central Route’s journey. EZ had been discussing this with me for awhile, but I didn’t quite understand and I was attempting to avoid being on a Harley. Now all that had changed.
The Missing Man Coordinator was a man named Tom “Bones” Pogue, and EZ told me I needed to call him. Just like with EZ, as soon as I heard Bones’ voice on the other end of the phone, I knew I was “home”. It was astounding to me that Bones was not a Vietnam Vet as his heart and soul was cut from the same cloth of depth, genuineness, care, and love. If this was the “crowd” I was going to be around, I had nothing to fear. If I had any expectations or fears left, they were skillfully being burnt up in a huge bonfire of blazing love to reveal a simple spaciousness that soothed my soul.
I had never met other Vietnam Gold Star “kids”, save for a long ago picnic and Christmas event in 1968 that was actually a horrid memory, as we all were shell shocked and shattered, and never saw one another again. On The Run were some “wall siblings” (those whose dad’s name are also on The Wall) that I would be meeting, and words can not convey what this meant to me as well. I had already connected with them via our private Facebook group, and had talked to some on the phone, but being able to meet face-to-face and hug is just beyond description.
Early Friday morning before Memorial Day had finally arrived! Making the drive from DC to meet up at RFTW’s meeting spot was amazing. I had visceral memories of living in Quantico, VA with Daddy and our family, and my heart was singing as my body recalled this entire area with fondness. Wearing my special t-shirt which matched the color of the blue sky reminded me of our happy times in this state. EZ had told us to be on time and we were early. Waiting for the bikes to finally roll in seemed like an eternity, my excitement was palpable!
Vroom, vroom and here they come! Platoon leaders, road guards, motorcycles galore and there I was obviously an FNG trying to contain my overwhelming emotion and excitement! My big brother EZ told me where to wait for him. I met my first “wall sibling”, Sandy who was also an FNG who had started the morning riding in the Missing Man formation for her Daddy, also a Marine and we exchanged quick hugs and tears as I was escorted by EZ to our spot and to meet Bones. As soon as I saw his soulful eyes, I said “Bones” as I went in for a hug. Two other RFTW brothers came up and introduced themselves as friends of Jed’s and gave me bear hugs. I was truly “home” here. Bones showed me the Missing Man chalk drawing and dedication he had made for my Daddy and it was perfect. And then it was “time”….something that had been building for months, perhaps 50-years was about to begin… I was going to ride Missing Man Formation for my beloved Daddy on the back of a Harley in the beautiful state of Virginia behind a police escort.
As we pulled out, it wasn’t lost on me that the last time I was in a police escort was 1968, as we rode in a black limousine following the flag draped coffin in the hearse ahead that carried my beloved Dad. Almost 50-years later I was now riding on a Harley, hair blowing in the wind, heart, soul and body finally mended back together, full deep breaths and easily allowing any tears to flow. Wham, the presence of My Dad was there as soon as we entered the road. Ohhh the love, the love was so palpable, strong, deep and overflowing… that is what brings the tears now. Sure perhaps always a hint of sorrow of what could have been, but the love is so thick, I can breath it, taste it, smell it, and touch it with my hands it seems. “Dangling” in the wind through the veils of time and space is the palpable essence of shimmering love… Mmm, was it my Daddy who whispered to Old School the idea of my nickname of Dangles?
Dear Lord, what a day this is… the sky is azure blue, a few soft fluffy clouds here and there as I ride with my brother who simply gets “it”, no words necessary, and behind me, a long flowing sea of souls on motorcycles committed to the same mission and whom are my “family”. I don’t use the word “family” flippantly, for the word alone means we “belong together” and I belong to them as they belong to me. My healing is their healing, and their healing is my healing. Together, we will love the war out of one another for the rest of our days. As we pulled into the host hotel, flags are waving, people are cheering, and I’m happier than I ever have been. All of my many years of individual healing, leading healing retreats, prayers, and such has all been deeply exquisite and lovely, but “THIS” was the missing piece. Thank you Holy Spirit for insisting I ring the doorbell. My brother EZ opened up so much more than his front door.
To be continued RFTW, to be continued…. so much love and gratitude to each and every one of you,
Anastasia Kurilich (Dangles)
Family Photo. I’m on the far left.
I was interviewed in DC by a local TV Station.