In Memory: Capt. R. Russell “Bear” Barnett, 1933-1966

He was my hero. I was the flower girl in his wedding, but he was the best man in my young life. I knew he would take care of me if anything happened to my parents; he was named as my guardian. He was a combat pilot in the Air Force, and I adored him.

Small children know about trust. He was worthy of mine.

I believed him the night when I was five and he awakened me. He carried sleepy me out to see a fat, full moon and pointed at it, “I’m going to fly there someday, Dixie.” I believed him. To this day, a full moon can break my heart.

Then, when I was 12 and he told me exactly how to get up on water skis, I did … the very first time. All because I believed him.  When he put me on his broad shoulders and I skied on top of them, I felt no fear, because he was my hero and he protected me. I’ll never be as tall as I was that day.

The year I turned nineteen, on the Thursday before Easter, his plane exploded  somewhere in the air over Southeast Asia and all my faith turned to ashes. On Easter morning, I wanted a miracle. I wanted him to be alive after all. His widow received lilies from him, sent, of course, before his last mission. She was hysterical, but then again, who wouldn’t be? I’ve despised Easter lilies since then.

Several weeks later, on Memorial Day, we went to his funeral at the chapel at Randolph Air Force Base. I wondered why they waited so long to have the service, but I knew little of life.  All I knew was that the military cemetery in San Antonio was filling up faster than ever.

At the chapel, I clutched at my mother and asked, “Where is the casket?”

“Memorial services happen when there are no bodies. And since it is Memorial Day, we are here to honor his memory,” she explained. He was truly gone. All of him. If there was any shred of my childhood left, it was well and truly killed that day. Memorial Day went from being the end of school to being the end of innocence.

Forty years later, again on the Thursday before Easter, I learned that his remains may have been found. And when they are fully identified (it can take years), I will travel any distance to honor him as his remains are laid to rest. He is in my memory forever. I knew him as a child and teenager, and I shall mourn him as a grandmother. He is still my hero.

Perhaps then, I can lay to rest my questions about Vietnam. All I knew then is all I know now: good people died, and good people refused to go. I still don’t know what the point of that war was.

We did not learn much from that war, or if we did, some people have forgotten its lessons. If your nation isn’t going to war for a damn good reason, don’t go at all. If you go to war, win the damn thing. Do not squander your children. Do not make the best into heroes unless it is for a heroic reason.

I visited the Vietnam Wall ten years after it opened. Its black granite panels held all the allure of a cold, steel autopsy table. The people who died, died violently and their names were violently gouged from the stone. The Wall was empty of mementos then. As I walked along it, I felt myself in the valley of the shadow of death. Redemption came only when I saw a single red carnation wedged into the seam beside his panel.

Vietnam is my generation’s crucifix. Many are still dragging that cross through their lives. Some bear stigmata; others are just shells of themselves up on that cross today.

Russell’s life will always have meaning for me.  One night some twenty years after his death, I saw an astronaut acquaintance — a woman doctor like I was — live from the Space Station. My heart broke anew. It should have been Russell there.

So as we honor those whose names fill military cemeteries, please remember each leaves many to mourn, not just family, but friends, kids, and teenagers. When a child loses a hero, tragedy lingers an entire lifetime.