THE KEY

Standing outside the hospital door, she wondered if this was a terrible mistake. Angie Gordon had not seen her father since 1970 when she was two-years-old, but now time was running out. Because she was so young when her dad held her for the last time, she had no memory of him. And it was only after her mother’s death three months ago that she finally began to find out a little bit about this stranger.

As she stood in the hallway hesitating, she was experiencing a wild mix of emotions that left her feeling more uncomfortable than ever about her father. She found it difficult to process the fact that on the other side of the door was the man she’d spent a lifetime ignoring.

But several days ago, Angie had finally made the decision to see him, and there was no turning back now. She took a slow deep breath to compose herself, opened the door and stepped into a situation that would change the rest of her life.

Because the lights were so low, her father was barely visible in the bed. She had been told that he’d slipped into a coma the previous afternoon and that he now had hours instead of days to live, but she was still shocked by the sheer number of tubes and wires that were connected to his body. The soft hum of the medical equipment broke the silence along with a variety of ominous pinging sounds emanating from a particularly grim looking device. Angie could see that her father was not breathing on his own.

She had learned that her dad was a big man, over six-foot-tall and 250 pounds, but the person she was looking at was emaciated. After a long battle with illness, his once powerful body had wasted away, and it was obvious to her that his struggle would soon be over.

Suddenly her thoughts were interrupted when she noticed a slight movement in the corner of the room. Angie turned and was startled to see a man sitting in the shadows. It had not occurred to her that someone else would be with her father.

Straining to see in the dimness, she looked closer at the visitor. He appeared to be an older person, probably about her dad’s age. He had what she considered to be a kind face and his gray hair gave him an oddly distinguished look. More importantly, she would soon learn that along with having an easy-going nature, he was a man of his word.

Her surprise was evident, so the visitor tried to put her at ease. In a surprisingly soothing voice, he said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to alarm you.” He smiled warmly at her. “But I believe you are the person I’ve been waiting for.”

Angie didn’t know what to make of his words – but she didn’t need this confusion on top of everything else she was feeling. With her stress escalating, she could not hide her irritation. “If you don’t mind me asking, how do you happen to know this patient?”

Pleased to hear her strong British accent, he said, “Matt is my friend. My best friend…… In fact, he’s like a brother to me.”

She still wasn’t sure what to think.

Although certain he already knew the answer, the man returned the question, “What about you?”

She sighed wearily and answered, “He’s my father.”

The man nodded. “As I suspected – you’re Angelina Gordon.”

For a few moments, she stared at the stranger. She definitely had some questions for him, but her attention was inexorably drawn back to the critically ill man in the bed.

Angie walked over to her father and gently took hold of his hand. She was surprised by how rough it felt. She looked down, and even in the low lighting, she could see extensive scarring. She had no idea what caused this, but she guessed it had something to do with his military service.

As she watched the ventilator make his chest methodically rise and fall, she felt an overwhelming need to stay close to him as he faced death. She had spent a lifetime pushing him away – but now she couldn’t bear the thought of letting him die alone. Angie stood for a time stroking his hand and arm. She’d waited so long to be near her father, she didn’t want to let him go.

The visitor stood up. “I’ll step outside for a while so you can spend some time with him.”

She quickly turned to the visitor. “No. Please, stay.”

The man realized she must have many questions, and he wanted to be as helpful as possible. “All right.” He dropped back into his chair and waited.

The grieving daughter took a second to collect herself and then spoke calmly. “You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”

“Of course, Mrs. Gordon. My name is Neil Stokes.”

Angie ran the name through her mind, but she didn’t recognize it. “You said you are friends with my father.”

“That’s right. We’ve known each other for more than forty years.”

Angie carefully laid her father’s hand on the bed and sat down in a chair next to him. Looking with intensity at the visitor she said, “They told me my dad slipped into the coma yesterday afternoon – and they also said it will be over soon.”

Neil agreed. “There will be no more pain.”

She wondered how much he had suffered during his illness. It was one of many questions Angie wanted to ask this man. “How did you happen to meet my father?”

He looked over at his friend. “We met because we were both desperate.”

She realized this could mean a lot of different things. Because of her father’s history of attempting suicide, she was afraid to inquire any further, but Neil wanted to explain.

“I’m sure you know that after Matt came back from serving in Vietnam, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.”

“I assumed it was something like that. My mother just told me he was not the same person when he returned home.”

“We met during the therapy that saved our lives. Because we each understood what the other was going through, it forged a bond like I’ve never had with another person.”

Her mother had made the decision to put the marriage behind her forever, consequently, she rarely spoke about Angie’s father. But on the rare occasions when she did, she painted a grim picture of a man who was out of control. Although she never mentioned Post-traumatic stress disorder specifically, her mother claimed she continually worried that he could become a threat to himself or others – and when he attempted to overdose on medication, it was too much to bear. She gathered up their daughter and left him, moving back to London to live with her family. Angie had not set foot in the United States in forty-nine years.

While keeping her eyes on her father, she said to Neil. “I’m glad you recovered from your struggles.”

“That’s kind of you to say.”

She knew the terrible toll that combat often had on veterans, but her mother had always refused to discuss the war or its aftermath with her daughter. In their home, Vietnam was a forbidden subject.

Neil waited patiently. He could only imagine what she was feeling at this moment, so he wanted to give her time. However, he was here for a specific reason, and he would soon need to keep a promise he had made to Matt.

Angie turned back to the visitor. “My mother refused to talk about my dad. What can you tell me about him?”

Neil smiled. “I can only tell you that I’ve never met anyone else like him. He is such an incredible person. What that man endured during the war would’ve broken someone like me, and certainly, he was affected for years.” He paused and then softly said, “I know that he tried to take his own life.”

She looked away. “That was when my mother left him, and we moved to England. I was two-years-old.”

“I don’t know if you are aware of it or not, but your father never remarried, and that was because he never stopped loving your mother…… But you…… you were the most important thing in his world.”

Neil knew what he was about to say would be hard for Angie to hear, but he wanted to be honest with her. “In all the years I’ve known Matt, he was never able to accept the fact that he couldn’t be a part of your life. It broke his heart.”

Hearing those words did hurt, and she reacted with visible pain – but Neil felt compelled to defend his dying friend. “Mrs. Gordon, your father loved you more than anything, and I know that he desperately tried to stay in contact with you.”

She knew there was no point in denying it. “Yes, that’s right. Throughout my life, he called me regularly and sent countless letters and cards. There were gifts for every birthday and at Christmas…… But I ignored it all. I had no interest in having contact with him.”

“I can assure you that no matter how often you rejected him – it did not change how he felt about you.”

Even though she knew it made little difference now, Angie still felt the need to explain her actions. “I wanted to love him, but I couldn’t because I didn’t think he deserved it. I believed my mother when she said that he was the one who broke up our family.”

Neil wanted her to help her see the truth about her father. “You’ve got to understand that he was sick. There were things that occurred during the war that are indescribable. What happened in Vietnam cost him everything – even the child he loved with all his heart.”

There was a long silence before Neil asked a very personal question. “After all this time, why did you finally agree to see him?”

Her remorse was obvious. “After my mother died, I began to learn bits and pieces about him that made me see my dad in a different light. He no longer seemed scary to me, and I slowly started to think that perhaps he was not the person my mother always claimed he was. I began to feel proud of him because he had overcome his demons and found the will to live.”

“I believe it was his love for you that gave him the strength to keep fighting.”

Tragically, Angie realized she would never know if that was true or not. “Two weeks ago, he called. It was the first time he had reached out to me since my mother passed away.” She thought back to that day. “Because I had no other family left, I reluctantly decided to talk to him. I felt incredibly ill at ease, but he did his best to make me feel comfortable. Thankfully, he showed no sign of resentment for the way I’d treated him.

“But I quickly realized that he sounded very sick, and he eventually told me the nature of the call. Choosing to be brutally honest, he made it clear that he was critically ill and that he’d been told he would not recover. He then explained that he had something he wanted to give me, but that he wanted to do it in person. He pleaded with me to come to America, but the conversation ended without me making a commitment.

“It may be hard for you to understand, but coming here was the most difficult decision I’ve ever made. I hesitated for days. Finally, after endless soul searching, at the last minute, I decided to make the trip.” She looked over at her father. “I will never forgive myself for waiting.”

Neil knew her anguish was real, and he felt genuine sorrow for her because she would always be haunted by her decision to delay her arrival. But he still had a responsibility to fulfill, and he didn’t want to hesitate any longer. Choosing his words carefully, he said, “Mrs. Gordon, it has fallen to me to give you the item that your father wanted you to have. Several days ago, Matt asked me to step in if he was not able to do it himself.”

Angie protested. “I know he wanted to give me something, but that is not why I came here. I just wanted to see the person who was missing from my life.” She felt overwhelmed as she realized that opportunity was now lost forever. “I’d give anything if he could know that I’m here with him.”

“It would’ve meant the world to him.”

Her voice ached with sadness. “There is so much I wanted to talk to him about because his life is a blank to me. I just want to know more about him. My mother refused to tell me anything at all. I would like to find what happened to him during the War. I mean, the way he recovered from his PTSD; he must have been very brave.”

Neil closed his eyes and said, “You have no idea how brave he is. In every way you can imagine, he is an amazing person.”

Angie looked at her father’s friend. She was glad they’d met. Talking with someone who knew her father provided at least a small amount of comfort.

The visitor cleared his throat and said, “I think it’s time that I honor my friend’s request.” Neil stood up and walked over to her. He reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a silver key taped to a folded slip of paper on which her father had written directions explaining where the key was to be used.

He placed them in Angie’s hand.

Angie stared at the items. “A key?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know what it opens?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know what I’m going to find?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Can you tell me?”

He shook his head. “Absolutely not. I promised your father, and I must keep my word.”

She looked at him in wonder. “But why a key?”

Neil smiled. “I suppose you could say it’s the key to the truth.”

 

***

 

Five days later, Angie was emotionally exhausted. She had buried the father she never knew, and, as his only surviving relative, had taken care of the endless loose ends and details that must be handled when a person leaves this life.

Neil Stokes had turned out to be a friend to her as well as her father. He had been thoughtful and considerate as he helped her through the difficult time. Most of all, she appreciated that he had refused to pass judgment on her for rejecting her father.

However, despite her pleas, he had politely refused to tell her anything else about her dad until after she used the key. But once she had honored her father’s final request, Neil said he would be more than willing to answer any questions she might have. As they parted ways, they exchanged phone numbers knowing they would forever remain a part of each other’s lives.

And now here she was at a bank, sitting alone in a room at a small table staring at a safety deposit box.

Angie couldn’t begin to imagine what her father wanted her to have, but she hoped it wasn’t anything of a financial nature. She wasn’t interested in his money, or stocks, or an insurance policy. Instead, she wanted it to be something personal that was important to him and that he wanted to share with her. But no matter what it turned out to be, it touched her heart that his last wish involved his daughter.

She picked up the key and nervously tapped it on the table. Angie was stalling, but she couldn’t help it. A month ago, she assumed she’d never meet her father, and now there was a chance they were about to make a connection that could be meaningful.

A little more time slipped by, and the tension steadily increased. Finally, she decided there was no point in waiting any longer. Whatever the contents were, she would deal with it.

Her fingers trembled as she slid in the key and turned it to the right. She heard two distinct clicks and then the lid popped open slightly. Carefully, she lifted the top of the metal box and was surprised to see that it only contained three items. It was momentarily disappointing because she had expected it to be stuffed with a lifetime of memories.

However, in an instant, her disappointment was replaced by a warm feeling she had never experienced before. She reached in and pulled out a faded photo of her father holding his young daughter on his lap. As she studied his face, Angie knew she’d made a terrible mistake by waiting. If only she’d come to America immediately when he asked her to, she could have spoken to him and maybe even hugged him. She turned the photo over and saw that he had written: My only photo of Angelina. Age 2.

She was caught off guard by the depth of emotion she felt. The fact that her father had kept the photo for almost fifty years proved that he really did love her – and by giving her the key, he wanted her to know that.

Angie thought about what it must have been like for her dad to be turned away by his only child. She wondered if she would ever be able to think of her father without feeling ashamed for the way she treated him.

Although feeling vaguely troubled by what else she might find out, Angie moved on to the next item, a large envelope that was closed but not sealed. She peeked inside and saw that there were two different sheets of paper inside. She thought about reading them, but she decided to set the envelope aside for the moment because it was the remaining item that intrigued her.

With her curiosity piqued, she reached in and picked up a darkly colored rectangular shaped box. Having never seen one exactly like it, she was surprised by how heavy it was. Angie hesitated for a few seconds and then carefully opened it.

What she saw made her gasp in shock.

The box contained an object so stunning she could hardly believe it was true. She knew how extremely rare they were and that most people would never see one in person – but there it was, right in front of her.

Angie stared in disbelief trying to comprehend all of the implications that it represented. Her eyes focused on the awe-inspiring details; the light blue ribbon, the field of stars and the word Valor over an inverted, 5-pointed star.

Slowly, she lowered her head and began to weep. After a lifetime of knowing almost nothing about this man, she now realized that whatever happened in Vietnam – her father had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Even though she was a citizen of the UK, she knew that to earn the highest decoration of the United States military required an individual to display fierce courage under the most extreme life or death conditions. It was no wonder her father had come home and had difficulty coping with what he had witnessed – and done.

Her mind drifted to the immeasurable heartache and loss the war in Southeast Asia had caused. The thousands and thousands of deaths, the life-altering wounds and injuries, the POWs, and those who survived their time in combat only to return home damaged psychologically and emotionally had changed America forever.

She thought about the shattered families like hers that had been torn apart by what happened to their loved ones 8,000 miles away, and it made her consider how different life would have been for all three of them if they had stayed with her dad instead of running away.

Angie loved her mother, and she wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, but she couldn’t understand why her mom had never uttered a single word about her father’s bravery.

It hurt to think about how she had so willingly believed every terrible thing her mother had said about her dad without ever giving him a chance to defend himself. And now it was too late.

But, in his own way, the key was allowing him to tell his side of the story, and she wanted to focus on the magnitude of what her father had done.

Working up her nerve, she reached down and gently touched the medal. It hardly seemed real, and she had to remind herself that this was actually happening. Angie could scarcely believe that the President of the United States had placed it around her father’s neck, and her mind reeled as she tried to imagine what her dad could’ve possibly done to deserve such an honor.

She could only hope that the envelope contained information that would explain such a monumental event. She quickly opened it and pulled out an official looking document and a handwritten letter.

Angie decided to look at the document first. She laid the paper flat on the table and instantly realized that it was the official citation that came with the presentation of the medal. With her hands shaking, she picked up the certificate and began to read the words that had changed her father’s life.

 

The President of the United States in the name of The Congress

takes pleasure in awarding the Medal of Honor

to

Staff Sergeant Matthew J. Williamson

United States Army

Listed next was his full rank, organization, date of birth, and the particular location in the war zone where the battle was waged. But it was the following description that tore at Angie’s heart.

Citation: Staff Sergeant Matthew J. Williamson distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with an armed enemy on May 19, 1966. On that day, Staff Sergeant Williamson’s platoon was ambushed by numerically superior forces on both flanks. Enduring withering fire, their unit quickly sustained multiple fatalities and many life-threatening wounds. Ordered to fall back, they were assaulted by an intense mortar barrage as they attempted to move to a defensive location. Staff Sergeant Williamson immediately took a forward position and, facing imminent danger, provided covering fire as the rest of the men continued to withdraw to a secure area. During this engagement, he was wounded three times by small arms fire. He was struck in the right shoulder, the left leg and the left hand. Although bleeding badly, he refused to leave the field of battle and instead began to gather the wounded one by one and pull them to safety. Under intense automatic weapon fire, and braving repeated attacks by grenades, Staff Sergeant Williamson brought thirteen gravely wounded men to safety. Thanks to his selfless actions, all of the men survived their tours of duty. As he attempted to rescue one more soldier, he was struck by shrapnel from a mortar round that severed his right leg just below the knee. At that point, Staff Sergeant Williamson lost consciousness due to massive blood loss. It was more than an hour before the enemy withdrew, and he could be evacuated. Staff Sergeant Williamson’s extraordinary courage, aggressive fighting spirit, and profound disregard for his own personal safety, coupled with his total commitment to the welfare of the men in his unit led him to save the lives of thirteen fellow soldiers. This heroic effort is characteristic of the highest traditions of military service and reflects great credit upon himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.

 

Tears began to stream down her cheeks as Angie felt the full impact of what she’d just read. Her dad’s incredible bravery and his horrific wounds were almost too much to comprehend. If only she had known her father’s story and the extent of his injuries, it would’ve helped her understand the issues he faced when he returned home.

Overwhelmed with guilt, she could not begin to imagine how badly her rejection had hurt him. All of his phone calls had been ignored and every letter he’d sent had been thrown away unopened. It made her feel sick to her stomach to think that at some point in his correspondence, her father might have tried to tell her about the medal. There was no doubt in her mind that she would live the rest of her life with a crushing sense of regret.

But although her heart was filled with anguish, she still needed to look at the handwritten letter. Figuring nothing could compare to what she had just experienced, she unfolded it and saw that the letter was dated May 19, 2016. Angie dried her eyes and began to read.

 

Dear Matt,

On the 50th anniversary of the day you saved so many lives, we felt compelled to reach out to you and, once again, offer our profound gratitude for the incredible bravery you displayed on the field of battle.

What you did for us as soldiers and, more importantly, as comrades and friends can never be repaid.

Although we know your life has been difficult – we also know that you faced those challenges with the same courage you showed under fire. You are a warrior of unassailable character, and we are living proof of that fact.

We wanted to take this opportunity to convey our heartfelt best wishes and to tell you that it is our fervent hope that you’ve found peace and comfort in knowing you acted so decisively without regard for your own welfare on that fateful day.

It is because of you that all of us are alive – but it’s important that you realize just how many others have been affected by your actions in Vietnam. The reality is that you not only saved us but also future generations.

Altogether our 13 families now total 41 children, 77 grandchildren, and 11 greatgrandchildren.

That means that 142 men, women, children and infants are alive today because of your inspiring sacrifice on the battlefield.

The fact that the United States of America chose to award you the Congressional Medal of Honor speaks to the kind of solder you were and the man that you are. It was our privilege to serve shoulder to shoulder with you in the jungles of Vietnam. The experiences we shared cannot be diminished by time or distance. We each think of you every day of our lives because we each owe you our lives.

Mere words cannot begin to describe the love and gratitude we have for you. Sir, you will live in our hearts forever and in the hearts of generations to come.

It is with the highest esteem and with the greatest respect, that we sign this letter.

Private Samuel Hanes, Private Timothy Carson, Private Mark Thompson, Corporal Manuel Garcia, Private Robert Fleming, Private Bradley Fields, Private Paul Armstrong, Sergeant Derrick Webber, Private Albert Spinoza, Private Bradley Clawson, Private Richard Nessler, Private Phillip Daniels, Private Andrew Hubbard

We salute you Staff Sergeant Williamson

May God Almighty keep you in His care and bless you all the rest of your days.

 

Shaking with emotion, Angie dropped the letter and began to sob.

An ordinary man had gone above and beyond the call of duty which compelled the military to bestow the highest possible honor on him. Consequently, in 1967, Matthew Williamson became a hero to a nation, and for 13 families, he would remain one forever.

But to the woman who sat alone in a room with a new profound love for a man she never knew, the Staff Sergeant was far more than a soldier, or decorated veteran, or even an American hero.

He was her father.

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