CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan - As two U.S. Navy Seabees raised the American flag, July 6, Petty Officer 2nd Class Dennis VanZuiden was reminded of his adolescence and of a loving father who always put him and his brothers first.
This was only the second time VanZuiden has seen this flag—the last time nearly three years ago when it was draped on his father Larry Damhoff’s casket.
The flag flew for five minutes before the two U.S. Navy Seabees lowered it. The Seabees meticulously folded the flag and gave it to VanZuiden. He held the flag tightly to his chest, as if he was standing there hugging his father. Clinching the flag, he thought back to the day when his father was laid to rest at his Army funeral in Fulton, Ill., Oct. 20, 2010.
“It was pretty hard. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be,” said VanZuiden. “Watching the flag fly overwhelmed me.”
VanZuiden and Larry were not bonded by blood. Larry married VanZuiden’s mother Julie who already had three boys.
VanZuiden said his father raised him and his brothers as if they “were his own,” since the boys’ young, impressionable days.
VanZuiden had been missing his father lately and he knew he couldn’t visit his father’s burial site this year for Father’s Day since he was deployed to Afghanistan. He had visited Larry’s gravesite the previous two years and wanted to do something special to honor his father.
When Father’s Day approached last month, VanZuiden, a builder with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 15, called his mother for ideas. She suggested he fly the American flag on Larry’s birthday, since the flag she mailed him would not make it to Afghanistan in time for Father’s Day.
For VanZuiden, the flag is a symbol of Larry’s character. Larry served in the Iowa Army National Guard from 1969-1975. He had orders to Vietnam, but they were cancelled due to the troop withdrawal. Instead, he was activated to help law enforcement quell the riots in Iowa City, Iowa, after President Richard Nixon ordered troops to Cambodia in 1970, which turned protests into riots nationwide.
It wasn’t until his father passed that he and his brothers ran his records and found out he rated an Army funeral.
“He was just a modest, quiet man who was about putting others before himself,” said VanZuiden. “He never talked much about himself or about his service in the Army other than he loved training with howitzers.”
VanZuiden regards his father as the epitome of a selfless man, who devoted his time and energy to take care of his family. Growing up, VanZuiden said while his friends slept in on the weekends, he and his brothers were up early and worked in the yard, around house and in the garage on the family vehicles. His father grew up on a farm and when the family woke up in the morning, “it was a given everyone in the household was helping out in one way or another.”
When it came to house projects, such as building a deck or replacing the shingles on the roof, Larry didn’t like to hire contractors. Rather, he wanted the boys to learn how to fix things on their own, to become self-reliant. He said it was “also a time to learn life lessons.”
“He taught us about hard work and supporting your family,” said VanZuiden. “He also taught us a lot about discipline, like not swearing and working hard to get what you want. I look back and reflect on my childhood and there’s not a day goes by that I don’t thank God for giving me such a great father. I am living a great life because of him.” Larry was the reason why VanZuiden and his brothers joined the military. With two in the Army and one in the Navy, Larry made it to each of his son’s graduations.
“[Larry] said he ‘couldn’t have been more proud than to have all of his sons join the military and follow in his footsteps’,” according to VanZuiden’s recollection. He said his father knew he and his brothers would be stationed far apart from each other, but they would be “serving together no matter where they were at.”
Other than the funeral, the brothers haven’t gotten together since they all joined the military. They haven’t had the chance to talk about their father’s military experience. Recently, however, one of VanZuiden’s brothers was in their mother’s attic and he found a chest full of their father’s Army gear.
“I can’t wait until I get back to the states so I can see what’s in that chest,” said VanZuiden.
He plans on returning the flag to his mother soon. Knowing he was able to pay tribute to a loving father will help him throughout the rest of his deployment.
“It was an emotional day,” he said. “I just miss him so much. He would have loved this.”