Sheehan

A beloved, humble hero comes to visit

Staff WriterJune 15, 2010 

I learned this spring that my father is a hero.

We'd always known he was a veteran, of course. A navigator from World War II who had narrowly avoided being killed with his longtime crew. A man who had considered his service an honor and an adventure. A member of the Greatest Generation in every sense.

But it wasn't until my dad was signed up for the Stars & Stripes Honor Flight, which took hundreds of his contemporaries from Milwaukee to see the WWII Memorial in Washington, that we learned a bit more about his service.

Turns out John Sheehan had been the recipient of the Air Medal, with four oak leaf clusters, and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

"You were awarded medals in the war?" I asked one night over the phone. He paused.

"Oh didn't I mention that?" he said.

No, Dad. You didn't.

Funny though, it isn't Dad's war service that makes him a hero on this Father's Day.

Not in my mind, at least.

Over the last few years, my mother's health has deteriorated. She's had surgeries and setbacks. A fall put her in rehab for months last winter.

Now she's home but still struggling. She can't do what she had always done; what she still desperately wants to do: the laundry, the cleaning, the shopping, the cooking.

Her memory is fading.

Quietly, without complaint, my father has stepped in and taken it all on himself.

He helps my mother into her special stockings. He doles out her pills. He whips up chicken cacciatore for dinner. He plants her favorite flowers.

At 86, my father continues to teach us kids the way he always has: by example.

This spring, I asked him for the umpteenth time how he manages to stay so positive while doing so much, and he said simply, "Ruthie, she's my wife. This is my life." They've been married, and best friends, for 62 years.

After his Stars & Stripes flight back from Washington, he stepped off the plane - "with all those old guys" - to the sounds of Sousa marches. Family members in the crowded terminal cheered and waved. My mom, in her wheelchair, held a sign that shouted, "Welcome Home John!"

As he made his way toward the Sheehan crew, he had to walk through a corridor of uniformed service members, each with a hand drawn up in sharp salute.

My dad told me later he felt embarrassed to be greeted with so much fanfare. "The war was more than 60 years ago!" he said. My mother told me he shed a tear.

Tonight, he's making another flight - this one from Milwaukee to Raleigh - with my mom for Father's Day weekend.

There won't be a band playing when he steps into RDU. No banners or balloons. No officers in uniform saluting as he passes.

Just me and my sons, waiting at the baggage claim.

But there's no doubt I'll be welcoming a hero.

ruth.sheehan@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4828

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