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Army Sgt. Robert Louis Howard was killed in action in 1969 during the Vietnam War. He was 24, and he left behind his ex-wife Roberta Vincent, and their 4-year-old son, Robert Howard II.
At the time of his dad's death, Robert II didn't quite understand what was happening around him.
"I remember not crying at the funeral," he says. "I thought it was a magic show. Seeing him, and then, when they draped the flag, all of a sudden the casket is closed. I'm like, 'Where did he go?' "
Vincent says it wasn't until a few years later that Robert II understood that his dad was gone.
"I remember you writing a paper about him in third grade, but the paper was written as if he was still here," Vincent says. "So I remember sitting down, talking to you, and you cried, I cried."
Robert II says he felt cheated without his father there.
"It kind of made me angry, especially coming from a small town where everybody knew my father but me," he says.
Vincent told her son she wasn't sure she could help him.
"I could see you struggling, but I didn't know how to help you," she says. "I would envision that God would take me and bring your dad back, because, at that time, you needed him more."
Robert II says as he grew older he blamed a lot of the turmoil he went through on the fact that his father wasn't around.
"As I grew older, drugs were a way for me to escape; and I really didn't care whether I lived or died at that time," he says. "I used to say to myself, 'Well things would be different if you were here.' "
But, he knew what he needed to do to get closure about his father's death after a dream one night.
"This dream was real vivid. There was a whole bunch of bodies on the ground and I was looking for my father's body," Robert II says. "I know he was there, but I couldn't find him. So I think he was trying to wake me up then. And I knew I had to go to Vietnam for me to lay him to rest."
Robert II did go to Vietnam and he took a medallion that has his father's picture etched in gold.
"I carried it around like it was a part of me," he says. "I never took it off. But, when I got to Vietnam, that's when I took off the medallion. And when I took that chain off, I felt a sense of relief. I didn't have to carry him anymore."
Vincent says she knows Robert II's dad is proud of his son.
"You certainly have walked in your dad's footsteps. You honor him daily," she says. "I love you dearly."
Robert II, who now has three sons of his own, says he love his mother, too.
"Thank you for sticking it out with me," he says.
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.