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It may go without saying how much we respect those who served in the armed forces. Our neighbors who walk through town with little more than a red and gold baseball cap, or maybe there is just a momento on a shelf inside his or her home that offers a reminder. These people often walk among us neither boastful or modest about those years. They are, after all, just everyday Joes living their lives as part of our community.
In the past week, our staff has spoken with a handful of military veterans to gather information on one particular person. Robert A. Kibbey has been absent from our community for more than half a century. He left soon after high school. Some folks still remember him from those days walking through the halls of Bethlehem Central High School. He was an All American boy who played football, baseball and ran track. He took on extra-curricular activities. He carted the film projector from class to class. A good looking kid. Shortly after graduating Bethlehem, he married his sweetheart. When you describe him like that, he sounds as wholesomely and perfectly American as apple pie.
The oldest of four sons, Kibbey went on to the military and became what so many young boys daydream of being. A pilot. He first flew planes, and then went to helicopters. He traveled the world, as a soldier, a son, a brother, a husband and a father. Two of his brothers followed him into service.
Kibbey grew up in a time where our country was snarled in conflict. He left high school in the midst of the Korean War. He was attending RPI when both sides agreed to a perpetual cease fire. And, after joining the Coast Guard, followed by the Air Force, the United State adopted France’s headache in Vietnam; with a little more than ten years separated the two conflicts.
But, maybe our respect for these people should not go without saying.
Respect is what we often pay with our choice of words. The Korean War. The Vietnam War. You want to get caught up in semantics, you may be inclined to call these two events conflicts. If you see war as something that has to be officially declared by our government, these two were not wars. Say that, however, to someone who was there. Have them describe to you their experiences while overseas in the midst of a — what’s that word you used again? Is that not the same term you use to describe when admitting you overbooked your day with appointments? It sounds far more benign that what you would describe a point on your calendar defined by 34,000 and 58,000 deaths, respectively. We will call it war.
No. Our respect for our military veterans should certainly not go without saying. It’s the conversation we didn’t have that awoke raw emotions within us. The conversation we could not have with Mr. Kibbey, because for more than 50 years his body was left somewhere in a thick Vietnamese jungle. The All American boy with the whimsical blond hair and a dream of frolicing among the clouds in a jet plane. Some Joe who slipped himself into a rescue helicopter and flew it into one of the most dangerous corners of the map to rescue a fellow pilot. A man who faced enemy fire and died, at 32.
A young man’s death is always tragic, as it only reminds us of missed opportunities. Of course, those missed opportunities are felt most by his friends and family. The experience of seeing brothers marry, to see his own children grow, or to become a doting grandfather. All were taken away, and the pain of those amputated life events were felt across the years, more than 8,000 miles away.
As we progressed with Mr. Kibbey’s story, the weight of these missed opportunities were felt. Words that often come with ease for us behind a keyboard were planted in a quagmire of emotion. We spoke with a nephew who never met his father’s brother. We listened as one of his brothers expressed how he once felt responsible. This was accentuated by the words of a military vet who shared how common that guilt arises when a soldier doesn’t come home. War has its bullets and explosions. They hurt and maim. Peering from the outside into this special bond that soldiers share with each other, it’s still easy to understand how that guilt can slowly eat away what’s left of a person.
The experience of coming back home, however, has not been robbed from Mr. Kibbey. His family eagerly awaits his return home after all these years, and it’s a feeling not exclusive to his kin. This community relishes the moment Mr. Kibbey returns back home to America. We rejoice in knowing that a family that had dealt with so much pain can finally have the closure it so richly deserves. To the Kibbey family, we did our best to treat this story with the utmost respect. He is, after all, a hero.
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.