My Marine Father Was Shot With an Assault Weapon, and No Civilian Should Own One

My dad was a marine in a war that used assault weapons. An assault weapon is what tore his face apart and killed the rest of his squad in a matter of minutes. No civilian needs one.
Publish date:
December 17, 2012
sandy hook, assault weapons

My father is blind. His right eye socket is sewn closed with delicate skin stretched over a sunken hole where his eye once was. His nose is constructed out of hipbone. He's had over 150 surgeries in his lifetime. When he doesn't wear a patch, it's jarring to see the disfigurement. It's obvious his face has been ripped apart in the most brutal way imaginable.

This is the work of an assault weapon.

An assault weapon is what was used to kill 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, last week by an unstable young man who was able to get his hands on this military-grade weapon.

Please, President Obama. Please, Congress, it is time. Join together to revive the 10-year ban that expired on these weapons in 2004.

These are not civilian weapons. I don't care how much cash the National Rifle Association has.

Growing up with my father, who was shot in the Vietnam War as a young marine when he was 21 -- many years before I was born -- there isn't a day of my life that I don't experience the effects of the weaponry used on my father. I just called him, home in San Diego now, to see what thoughts he might have for this piece.

He was frustrated and upset, having just spent the last half hour trying to find the phone that he dropped on the floor. These are the challenges that can take him over the edge sometimes. It brings tears to my eyes when I think of the love that I have for this man, and the consequences of what was done to him, which includes a head injury that can present in baffling, terrifying rage and unpredictability.

Add in a mundane daily task such as a phone that has been lost to blindness, and you have a recipe for explosion at a moment's notice. But not now. My father is calm when I call today.

"I wanted to get your take on why assault rifles should be banned," I told him. We agreed it would be best if I talked to his surgical nurse, the one who saw the ravages of what these killing machines do in a time of war -- and who could perhaps comment best on the insanity of their availability to the public at large. My dad called her to see if she was willing to talk to me. She said she was very sorry, but she couldn't even stomach talking about it. The idea was simply too traumatizing for her to revisit. The memories too horrifying to relive.

To quote a poem that this trauma nurse wrote about saving my father's life, many years after the fact, trying to rid herself of the haunting memory of his face: "There is little remaining to identify you, Yet here you lie, awake and staring at me. Wanting an answer to the question: 'Please! How bad is it?' My insides churn. I’d like to turn and run, bury my head in someone’s shoulder, scream, then cry. Instead, I swallow hard, Wipe the blood from your eyes, And tell you the truth, pausing momentarily, To say we will try our best."

At the time she wrote that, she didn't know if he had lived or died. She thought he might have taken his own life. Instead, many decades later she recognized him at a Vietnam Women's Memorial dedication in D.C., read him the poem and broke down.

In war, my father spent much of his short tour of duty as a combat marine thrown into the most deadly part of battle, near Khe Sanh, time spent hiding and in pursuit. He carried an M-16, another form of assault weapon. He spent his days as a private first-class hiding in foxholes, sleeping on hills. He didn't know it at the time, but he and his fellow marines were outnumbered 8 to 1.

According to another man who served on this tour, it was the worst two days of the battle that he saw that year. When the North Vietnamese soldier appeared from hiding, a deadly sniper waiting in the bushes, the four men my father was with in his squad were killed instantly. But not my father. He took two rounds to the face from the AK-47, fell to his knees and held his head in his hands saying, "Please let me die, let me die, let me die."

Another marine found him, but could not carry my father because of his size. Instead that marine screamed at my dad to force him up the hill to bring him to a helicopter waiting nearby where he was brought to the surgical ship and the trauma nurse who saved his life.

The telegram to my father's relatives at home read: "This is to inform you that Gerald U. Stadtmiller, USMC, was injured on 15 june 1968 in the vicinity of Khe Sanh, Republic of Vietnam. He sustained fragmentation wounds to the face with a compound commuted skull fracture and cerebral lacerations and bilateral eye injuries. His condition was very serious and his prognosis poor."

When he returned home to San Diego, my father's fiancee dumped him. He then met Pat, my mom, who was absolutely aghast. She thought he was the most wrecked person she had ever seen.

Then she fell in love with him. And left her fiancee for my father.

Today my father uses his master's in counseling to serve as a counselor to veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. He is floored by the level of weaponry he now hears about from these men. Says my father, "The assault weapons they have now are unimaginable. The rifles these kids describe to me are unbelievable. We as civilians have no idea the reign of destruction and death they can impart."

The assault weapon that ripped my father's face apart four decades ago was a toy compared to what they have now.

"When I called my nurse tonight, I said to her, for some of these politicians, even if their own first-grader was killed by an assault weapon, I'm afraid they are so entrenched in their beliefs they might not back down and reinstate the ban," he said. "They keep saying the 'bad guys' have them so we need to have them. That argument seems to win the day every time."

I brought up the "Rambo" mentality that my father would always refer to when I was growing up, and I asked if he thought this was part of the appeal for a civilian to want such a military-grade weapon. "Oh, hell yes," he said. "Hell yes. It's the feeling of invincibility. The destruction that you create when you hold the trigger, and it just destroys whatever you're shooting at. The question is: How deranged does a person need to be to feel invincible against civilians -- or in this case, unarmed first-graders?"

I asked if he supported Congress and President Obama reinstating the assault weapons ban that expired under the Bush term. "You're damned right," he said.

And not just my father. He said many, many others in the military support the restriction as well.

"If this tragedy in Connecticut doesn't restrict the sale of assault weapons to civilians," my dad said, his voice rising in anger, "I don't know what the hell does."


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