Military Child found happiness years after father's death
Ronald J. Coleman was a loving father of three young children. He re-enlisted in the Air Force in 1964 so he could provide a better life for his wife and growing family.
But now it was December 1971, and the hardworking technical sergeant and automotive repairman was in Vietnam making sure military vehicles were running smoothly in the midst of war. It was hard work, made even harder by the fact that his relationship with his wife had been fractured during his many months in the faraway land. It had been strained before then. They were a young couple who married young. Maybe too young.
But Ronald was always thinking of his children, and he made sure they knew it. That year, he sent money to his mother so she would buy them Christmas presents from him - presents that would not be opened until weeks after the holiday had passed.
It was a typical Christmas morning in 1971. The Coleman kids – RJ, named after his dad, and his two sisters, Dawn and Sandy – waited anxiously for their mother and her parents to give them the OK to storm their Bellevue, Neb., living room and rip open their presents. That moment never came.
Here’s what we know: Tech. Sgt. Ronald J. Coleman died Dec. 24, 1971, in Vietnam. Records show he was in an automobile accident and was pronounced dead in an ambulance as it sped to Army Surgical Binh Thuy Air Base. That’s all the family was told. His death is still a mystery to this day.
What’s not a mystery, is the toll their father’s death took on the Coleman kids. It is a childhood filled with pain, sorrow and abuse from a stepdad whose first words to the three siblings after their mother broke the news that they had married were, “Go to your rooms.”
“Life was very unpleasant for the three us,” Dawn says.
For Dawn, it took years to forgive and move on. She struggled letting folks get close to her, including a soldier who would eventually become her husband.
“I told him it was a mistake to marry me,” she says today.
Despite Dawn’s best efforts to scuttle the relationship, Jarret and Dawn Blanton have now been happily married for 32 years.
Jarret retired from the Army in May 2013 as a chief warrant officer 4 after for 26 years, 9 months and 27 days of service. The couple, who reside in Colorado Springs, Colorado, raised two children, Erica and Tia. Their childhoods differ greatly from that of their mother’s.
I recently sat down with Dawn and Erica, a senior airman who serves as a DJ for American Forces Network in Japan.
The conversation brought tears, laughter and thoughtful reflection between mother and daughter, both proud military brats.
STRIPES: Dawn, take us back to Christmas Day 1971. You’re 7 years old - you, your older brother and younger sister are anxiously awaiting the opportunity to tear open your presents underneath the tree. But then there’s a knock on the door.
DAWN: It was very early and we hadn’t even been allowed out of bed yet as my mother’s parents were visiting. So the presents were still under the tree when the doorbell rang. My mother answered the door and was already crying when we were brought out to the main room and told about our father’s death. I remember walking into the room, seeing her crying with my grandmother holding onto her. Standing nearby were two Air Force men in dress uniforms. They looked so stiff and out of place. I instantly resented them. I don’t remember much more from that day or the days that followed except that we didn’t open the Christmas presents for quite a while after that. Christmas was not a festive holiday for many years at our house. It actually wasn’t a good holiday for me until I had children of my own. My father had sent his mother money from Vietnam to purchase our Christmas gifts that year. We didn’t know she had purchased them because the tags stated they were from Dad and we treasured those gifts like they were gold. We still retain them today.
STRIPES: For years you blamed those two men. But as you got older, how did your attitude change?
DAWN: It’s always easier to blame those that we aren’t emotionally attached to. Those men in the Air Force uniforms were the individuals that had relayed the most horrific news possible to a family on a child’s most treasured day of the year. It was devastating in all ways that matter to a child’s heart. As I grew older and matured, I realized that it must have been just as emotionally damaging for those men and their families to have to deliver that type of message on such a significant day. It was a horrible situation for all and I had to forgive those men so that I could forgive the Air Force (i.e. our government) for something that none of us had any control over.
STRIPES: Erica, you’ve heard this story before.
ERICA: It wasn’t until I got older that I heard the story and really understood what it meant for my mom to go through something like that, especially at such a young age, and how her life changed afterward. My mom has always been open and honest with her feelings, especially when it comes to her childhood, her relationship with her parents and step-father, and how it shaped her as a person.
STRIPES: Tell us about your mom, Dawn.
DAWN: My mother chose to quit high school before graduation so she could marry and follow my father wherever he was sent. They had three children in rapid succession almost immediately after getting married and were going through tough times, relationship wise, when he died in Vietnam. I think we knew that at the time, but as children we really didn’t understand what that meant for them as a married couple or for us as a family. They were both so young and I think started a family much too soon. My father’s family refused to have contact with my mother or us afterwards. It was devastating as both sets of parents lived within a few miles of each other and had the same friends. My mother was never one to talk with me about my father, their relationship or the time after his death, even when I was an adult. Much of that time is lost in memory, but I do know that she spent a lot of time looking for a job, scrounging for ways to save money so we could stay in our house, and trying to keep us happy and healthy. I remember that one of her jobs was at a catalog factory, and she would bring catalogues home so we could cut out the pictures of the people and clothes for dolls. She was eventually introduced to Mr. Akins and they married sometime later.
STRIPES: After your father’s death, you felt like the military helped your family throughout the years.
DAWN: After my dad died, we lost our family’s main bread winner. The Air Force provided a monthly payment for my mother as a widow and us as the surviving children. The widow payment was lost when my mother remarried, but the surviving children payments stayed until we were 18 years of age, as well as our access to certain military amenities. Mr. Akins was in construction and was usually unemployed every winter due to weather but wasn’t allowed to find alternate work as he was union. So, the money received from the Air Force each month was really the only money coming into the house during that time. That money kept us from starving, although we often had to quickly relocate where we lived.
STRIPES: You spent a couple years in college, but you had a calling, didn’t you?
DAWN: When I was in 11th grade, we moved from an area where most people are attached to the military in some way to an area where hardly anyone has any connection to the military way of life. It was quite an experience to see the difference between the two. I received a letter from the government stating that I must graduate high school by a certain date and enter college if I wanted the Air Force to contribute any funds toward a college degree. So, I accelerated my curriculum, took college courses and graduated high school halfway through my senior year. I would go to high school in the morning, college in the afternoon and then work at night. Oh, the things we can do when we are young and haven’t thought of limitations yet. I worked and went to college for two years. While I was in college, both my older brother and younger sister joined the Army and the rest of the family moved to another state. I enjoyed college but never really felt like it was where I wanted to be. My siblings had joined the Army, not the Air Force, and I could completely understand why, as we all felt betrayed no matter how illogical that sounds. The Air Force had come to our house on Christmas Day before we opened our presents and told us that our father was dead, and then Mr. Akins came into our life and well … it got really ugly and painful and sad. It’s not logical but I had to get through years of pain and fear to grow, to find compassion and to forgive. As I spent my time at college, I realized that I needed to step out of the safe, sterile environment that I had chosen to protect myself. I knew that if I wanted to have a life worth living, I needed to make choices that pushed me out of my safe space. Giving back to the government that had given so much to me and my family for so many years seemed the perfect way to start. I felt that I had a debt to pay – I just wasn’t ready yet to give it to the Air Force. So I, too, joined the Army.
STRIPES: Some people would say your family earned that money because your dad made the ultimate sacrifice.
DAWN: When you join the military, you make that choice. Whether you want to give back to your country, go to college or the military life just appeals to you, that’s your own personal choice. The military doesn’t owe you for that choice. If you lose your life in the process, like my father … with all my years in the military, I still don’t think the military owes you a free ride in everything. They owe you what you give. The military was still providing me money till I was 18. That’s a lot of time for a choice my father made.
STRIPES: Erica, your mom and her siblings wouldn’t join the Air Force because of their father’s death. But you did.
ERICA: Whenever anyone finds out my parents were Army and I’m Air Force they ask why I didn’t join and the answer is always the same: “Because my parents were Army.” I think there is a “grass is greener over there” mentality about a branch of service you haven’t already been exposed to. Having grown up with the story of my grandfather and his service and knowing that none of my aunts and uncles (or their children) joined the Air Force, I’m very humbled to bring that thread of military service back into the family history and share this connection with him.
STRIPES: Dawn, what did you think of Erica joining the military?
DAWN: The military can be quite a painful experience if you’re not ready for what is required of you, and I was worried that she would not be happy in the military although she had been raised in the military environment. We moved every two to three years as a family … we are independent people because of that, but we are also very close. I firmly believe that we decide who we become. We choose who we are despite our childhood and how we were raised, and we become stronger because we have to be stronger due to challenges in our life. The military is a great way to have the option to be a better, stronger, more empowered version of you than you thought possible. I wanted that for her because she was already amazing and could only get better!
STRIPES: Erica, you’ve called your mom a great role model and a strong woman. What makes her those two things?
ERICA: My mother and I are two very different people, and growing up for us was a struggle. She has always prided herself on being a strong person; that’s just who she is. If you ask her advice on how to do anything she says, “If you want to do something, just go do it.” For her, that makes complete sense. Which is insane. But that’s her. She has always, from a very young age, worked to instill in me self-confidence and the importance of being a strong independent woman. She used to say that she was an angry and mean person, which I think fueled that strength. She had to be, that’s how she learned to cope as a kid. But when you have a family, things change. You have to change. And watching her shift how she defined her own strength and where she drew it from...I mean there aren’t any words. You don’t realize when you’re a kid that your parents are learning as they go and they’re changing just like you are. I’m really proud of her.
STRIPES: You and Jarret were both MPs and met while at Fort Leonard Wood … so you were tough?
ERICA: She is a tough cookie (laughs).
DAWN: We were dating and I got orders to the DMZ in Korea. So, Jarret decided we were going to get married (laughs). I did not want to get married. I wasn’t ready. I told him it was a mistake and that he would not be happy. Really what I told him was, “I’m not a nice person. You really don’t want to marry me.”
STRIPES: You seem like a real nice person now. And you’ve been married for a long time. Something worked.
DAWN: It took me a real long time. I was not a happy, nice person. I had a lot of anger. A lot of anger … I became a dog handler and MP because it allowed me to get a lot of that anger out.
STRIPES: After you got married, you and Jarret where stationed in Panama, had Erica and then decided to both get out of the service. How was that?
DAWN: We hated it. We were so used to the military way of life. You become a family and are so comfortable … you enjoy that way of life. So we flipped a coin and he came back in. It was a good move because he is so much more politically correct than I am (nodding and laughs from Erica). And I still had anger issues.
STRIPES: You’ve talked about your anger issues. You’ve come such a long way. When did you allow yourself to be happy?
DAWN: When I first when to college, I roomed with a girl named Jenny. She would make me stand in front on the mirror and make faces … when I was growing up my stepdad wouldn’t allow us to show emotion. He would mock us. So, Jenny would show me how to make faces … happy, sad, angry. When I met Jarret, I did everything I could to push him away. But that man kept coming back and coming back. He never gave up. He saw who I was, even before I did.
STRIPES: And then along comes children.
DAWN: When I had children, I pushed myself to be better than what I had. I wanted to be a good person for my daughters because I chose to have them. I had to choose to be a good parent. It’s a job you really have to be good at because you only have one opportunity. So, I really had to figure out how to be a better person and let the baggage go. I had to realize that I had it so much better than many other folks in the world. I had to stop wallowing in my misery.
ERICA: I think that’s what grandma did. She wallowed in it. I think grandma let the hardship of her life take her down and you didn’t.
STRIPES: And your marriage is successful. How did you guys make it work? I mean, you had your issues?
DAWN: Jarret and I are two dragons who really like to push each other to do better. Push each other to laugh. But we are also very steadfast and faithful. We work. We just work. It takes time. And he was willing to take that time. I really didn’t fall in love with him until we had been married for a year. He took a leap. I took baby steps. Now we are running together.
STRIPES: Erica, you’re a lucky girl.
ERICA: My parents are amazing. You don’t realize that growing up. “Like, my parents suck.” (smiles and laughter) But looking back at it, if they were arguing, we never saw it. They are very encouraging and worked together to raise us.
STRIPES: As you know, Dawn, April is Month of the Military Child. There are many like you who have lost parents during wartime. More will undoubtedly follow. As someone who has experienced the loss, what would you say to a child who now may be going through the same tragedy?
DAWN: That was the most painful experience that I have ever gone through. It still hurts today and will probably be a wound on my heart until the day I die. But I realized early on that I could use the memory of him, of his love, to help make me a stronger and better person. It hurts, it will always hurt, but remember the love … that lasts forever.