Lessons Of A Father: Survival and Life Lessons From A Single Vietnam Veteran Raising A Daughter

Avatar Samantha Biggers  |  Updated: April 23, 2019
Lessons Of A Father: Survival and Life Lessons From A Single Vietnam Veteran Raising A Daughter

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This post is one I have been thinking about for a long time. One reason I know what I do about survival and prepping is the unconventional household I grew up in. There was no Mother in the home. She lived nearby. My interactions were off and on after the age of 5.

My Dad was the one that raised me from 5 years old and on. Even before then I spent as much time as possible with him.

My Dad got his draft card in the mail when he was 18 and out in the hot North Carolina sun plowing the tobacco patch with a mule. He went to Fort Jackson and then off to Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 and was never the same again. As he put it, he came back “an old man in a young man’s body”.  He was there for TET. He headed out to Washington in the early 70s to get away and work in the timber industry.

By 1988 he was raising a daughter as a single father. My brother only lived with us for a short time because he stayed in NC for a while and then went out on his own after that. He is 8 years older, so we led somewhat separate lives.

My Dad was 37 when I was born so a lot of my formative years he was in his 40s.

This is part of what I learned from being raised by a single father Vietnam Veteran from the mountains of North Carolina.

Barter and coming out ahead

When my dad and uncles friends came over, they would barter and trade. You could tell they had a lot of fun with it. It was very social, and it was usually not for a lot of value but I paid attention. Sometimes they would act like they were up to something and that taught me some of the tricks people do to get the upper hand of a deal. This served me well in life because there is always someone out there ready to take advantage of you or at least get more out of you than they should.


My Dad knows what it is like to starve. During Vietnam it is on record that him and his platoon were lost for 5 days with no support and not near enough supplies. That was 5 days I dare not delve into too much when talking to him. He drank bad water and his troops had to eat whatever they could scrounge out of the jungle all while trying to stay on the down low so they didn’t get killed. The US officials had no idea where they were. Chances are they were in Cambodia or Laos where no one wanted to admit US troops were. My Dad always made sure we had a lot of food on hand.

One of the stupid things he told me that happened is they would lose you in the jungle and then complain because your hair was long and you hadn’t shaved. Like that was something they should be worried about when their life was on the line!

How this applies to prepping and long emergencies: Food is critical and without it you cannot perform well for very long. Reduced caloric consumption and lack of protein means you are weakened and not able to think clearly. While in a war situation, having rations for months at a time was not possible, at home there is no reason to not stash food during good times. Most people in the USA have never been hungry let alone faced not getting enough calories for an extended period while pushing their body to work harder and under a lot of stress. Put back a lot of food and rotate it out so that you always have a good stash for everyone in your family. Count kids as adults so you have a cushion of calories.


Considering that he drank from places full of very nasty stuff while in the military, it is little wonder why my Dad was so determined that we would never face a lack of clean water if there was anything at all he could do to prevent it. Add the Agent Orange run off, and it is a wonder he is alive and didn’t have some of the more serious symptoms of poisoning to later in life.

My Dad always told me that water is the most important thing to have on hand. Water kept him going when he went with little food for days in the jungle.

How this applies to prepping and long emergencies: Water is your first line of survival. You always need to have a good source of it and multiple ways to filter it. Storage containers are another essential. Water is the first thing you should get sorted when you start prepping.

Situational awareness and being on guard

Veterans that have seen heavy combat never lose the habit of accessing their surroundings. Ok maybe some people do it less but not my Dad. When we would shop he always knew where the exits were and got in and out fast. I learned to not even bother sitting down in some areas over the years.

Then you had to sweep the room and look for out-of-place things or dangers. Being on guard at least a little is one thing but being on guard to that degree was probably a bit much at times although crime and debauchery did become a lot more common as I got older.

How this applies to prepping and long emergencies: You always need to be aware of your surroundings and what is going on. Those that live in urban areas need to practice this even more so than some in the country do because the cities are getting more dangerous. As people that cannot stand the worsening conditions leave, those left will have a lot more criminal elements to deal with. Kids need to be taught to be on guard too.

People decide what a gun does

My Dad gave me my first gun when I was 8 years old. I had shot guns plenty before that but this was when I officially had my own. We were up in the North Cascades at the end of an old logging road overlooking the Skagit River when I was given that little Winchester.22 pump.

While I understood that guns killed people in wars and cops used them for protection, I also knew that most of the folks where we lived used them to put meat on the table. I always saw a gun as a way towards living off the land and feeding your family.

Regardless of how you feel about guns on a moral level, the decision to harm comes from the person behind the decision to pull the trigger. Guns were always part of our household. I was loading 100 round drums for AK-47s when I was in 1st grade and using stripper clips to load ammo before that. I was taught that a gun is a serious thing to be respected, but that it was up to the person wielding it how it was used.

I also knew from a young age that people without guns were sometimes treated poorly by those that did. Guns are an equalizer.

How this applies to prepping and long emergencies: Guns are what you make of them. The USA has the most guns per capita of any country and that means that if you don’t have one when SHTF, a lot of other people will and that leaves you at a severe defensive disadvantage. The choice of how to use your gun is up to you.  Guns do a lot more than kill people. A gun can allow you to eat better and if you have the ammo, a lot more humane if you have to butcher an animal than just slitting their throat first or bashing their head in. Sounds brutal, but that was how a lot of butchering happened a long time ago.

History repeats itself more than it should and you don’t always want to be part of the repeat

Some may find this awful but my Dad would sometimes point out people and tell me what they were like before and I would see what they were like now. I got made fun of a lot by kids when I was in grade school and he pointed out that the bullies and “cool kids” often turned out leading unhappy lives while those that were the brunt of the abuse did not. After I got older and saw this for myself I remembered thinking he was 100% right. Bullies and negative people do not come out ahead in the long term. During a major situation that may be different.

When watching the news or discussing history, we would talk about parallels and how things might change but some things are very similar. For example, despite all our knowledge and innovation, we are still fighting and killing each other over the same things. People never have learned to work together that well.

How this applies to prepping and long emergencies: Learning from the past is important. If you see a pattern, it can help you understand your situation and what may be in store. Therefore you can learn a lot from looking at past SHTF situations. For example, the parallels between The Opium War in China in the 1800s and the opioid epidemic we are dealing with now in the United States have amazing similarities and even some of the same players.

That some people are bad

Again this is harsh stuff, but it is better to realize that some people enjoy hurting or causing fear in others or have no empathy at all.  I think many people have a very hard time acknowledging this and as a result, they trust too much or direct hate and fear towards those that do openly admit that not everyone is good.

There is the real world, and the idealized world. Remember to distinguish between the actual reality and the way you believe things should work. Don’t be the person who walks through the most high crime area just because you think you should be able to.

How this applies to prepping and long emergencies: Being too trustworthy and nice to everyone can get you in trouble or killed during a long emergency. Even during good times, there are always those that really have no good intentions at all. It is foolish to assume someone is a great person and trustworthy until you know them better and they prove it. If someone turns out to be bad, then you want to distance yourself as much as you can. During SHTF you may have to deal and trade with some terrible people but by acknowledging they are bad, you can be better prepared to do business and interact as safe as you possibly can considering the circumstances.

People have to want to change at least a little or it won’t work

There were times growing up that I really wanted to help people. My Dad liked to help people but at the same time he pointed it out if people were beyond helping.

How this applies to prepping and long emergencies: Just because you see someone screwing up badly doesn’t mean they care that they are. While a few may come to realize this, you have to accept that some people are comfortable being the way they are no matter how bad that may be for them or others. You can try to help someone but if they show signs of not responding well to that help, it may be time to put your good intentions towards somebody or something more worthy.

Defense should be taught young.

I carried pepper spray and a knife from age 13 but the knife I carried when I was maybe 8. He taught me to be careful and made sure I had a lock back.

Getting out of a hold if someone sneaks up on you

My Dad was raising a girl on his own for the most part. My uncle helped out a lot and my grandma did at times too. They wanted me to be able to get out of a situation if for some reason no one was there to help me. My dad had a lot of hand to hand combat training in jungle warfare due to his experience in Vietnam. I remember being in 2nd grade or so and him showing me how to get out of a hold from behind and to be on top of it if another response was needed after that.

How this applies to prepping and long emergencies: While it is admirable for adults to take the initiative to learn self-defense, children and teens need to be able to do what they can to protect themselves when there is no adult to do so. Even if there is an adult around, if a child reacts in a defensive manner when necessary rather than pure panic, it can help sway the situation to a better outcome. Karate and other martial arts are a good way to get kids excited about learning self defense.

The difference in a good man and a bad one

Ah teenagers. When one is that age we think that parents shouldn’t tell us who to hang out with and who to date. Well I am glad my Dad would flat tell me to stop hanging out with someone or dump them. I didn’t date more than a few people as a teen but he would tell me what he thought and I thank him for that. He wouldn’t just say dump them or stop hanging out either. My Dad would explain why and what trouble it could lead too. I think that was really important because it made it easier to understand that it was out of caring and not just trying to be controlling.

I joke that the only man I ever dated that he liked was the one I married. He actually never had anything negative to say about Matthew.  More parents should show this kind of tough love for their child. While being a friend to your kid is admirable, it should never get in the way of being a parent and setting a child in the right direction.

How this applies to prepping and long emergencies: Being able to accept that people that you thought were initially more than alright to be around are actually not that great is important when it comes to adapting to a new reality in an SHTF situation. Accepting this can actually make it easier if you have to work with this person or even live with them. Trying to

To make my way respectably and go for my dreams

While the women in my family were telling me that I should strive to be a model and marry a doctor, my Dad was encouraging me to read, get good grades, and pursue college because most of the things I wanted to do at the time pretty much required a college degree. He told me I could do a lot if I just put my mind to it.  When I told my Mom during a visit, I was going to college in North Carolina when I was 8 years old she flat told me no you are not and I said yes I am. It turned into a big deal and a lot of smirking on the part of Mom because she really thought she could stop me from achieving my dreams.

College is not good or needed for everyone but it was for me because it gave me a chance to live on my own for the first time and meet a lot of people

If you got a good Mom, cherish them, because a lot of us have the opposite.

That you have to make tough choices and cut ties from toxic people in your life, even if they are family.

At 16 I got on the Greyhound bus with my dad and didn’t tell anyone in my family. I don’t think the few friends I told believed it because I had been pestering my Dad to leave for 4 years at that time. While it may seem cruel to just up and leave without saying anything to family, sometimes you have to make a choice that determines your entire future.

My choice was to tell them and then wind up in a court situation or at least very delayed in leaving or move to a place where I had a chance to get away from a ghost town full of drug dens, liars, domestic abusers, and relatives that acted more like hypocritical bullies than carrying family. If I had stayed there, it would have been a constant mess. I had little reason to believe it would improve as I got older.

He wanted to wait until I was 16 to leave Washington because that was old enough that he didn’t think anyone could really cause trouble or protest him taking me away from Washington. It was one of the best decisions possible, getting on that bus and leaving everything behind except what fit in two bags. A clean slate that was the start of what I have now.

How this applies to prepping and long emergencies: Sometimes you have to make tough decisions that are best for you and that may involve hurting people’s feelings or completely abandoning them when they make it impossible to do what is necessary for survival and wellbeing.

Don’t just manipulate people and play the victim to get what you want

There were times when it seemed like there was little use in trying to do better or act respectful when it seemed like those that didn’t care were happier and getting ahead. My Dad taught me if you want something you have to go after it and not just manipulate others into doing what you want or make people feel sorry for you all the time. Not many people have absolutely everything handed to them.

How this applies to prepping and long emergencies: People notice if you are always trying to get them to do exactly what you want and not offering much in return. People need to be contributors, especially in a survival situation. You need to think about how you treat others

Men and women are different but have equal value as human beings

I might ruffle a few feathers saying this. My Dad would not let me pursue some activities and did tell me that girls were not usually as physically strong as boys that it was just nature.

That is considered by many to be extremely sexist and bad in today’s society but he was right to not be deceptive and say that men and women are the same.

My Dad didn’t mean for me to feel like less he just did not want to see me injure myself or get in weird situations with the opposite sex.

Men and women can differ in their strengths and abilities but this should not cause the major conflict that it seems to in society. We need to value each other strengths instead of thinking that we have to be good at everything. Specializing and dividing labor makes a lot of sense and gets more done.

For more on this please check out my article “Appreciating The Skills Of Others”.

How this applies to prepping and long emergencies: I do a lot more manual labor than average and I have worked on logging crews with men and women and there is a difference. The smaller women tried, but they were not as physically capable as the smaller men. They worked hard and did as good a job as they could do and it was admirable that they even wanted to be on a crew that was that much work. I think it is important to recognize this for prepping because you are no use to anyone if you try to do more than your body can handle and wind up unable to do much at all that is helpful.

It was fine for girls to do traditionally masculine things if they were interested.

I was always really interested in knives and carving things, running in the woods on the river bank, and just getting outside. Being raised in an all male adult household meant that my speech and actions definitely had a more masculine influence. This was not ok when I had to spend time with women in the family. Everything that came out of my mouth that was meaningful or the truth warranted and horrified look and an exclamation of “Samantha!” and was told “to not talk like a man”.

I didn’t gloss things over when talking. I wasn’t rude but I would not always portray things delicately by using the “nice words” for things. I am not talking about swearing either.

My dad taught me how to shoot, make defensive weapons, sweep an area for intruders, walk silent in the woods, sharpen a knife, and tell if a knife was any good. He let me wear mens shoes or clothes if I wanted and choose my friends up to a point and regardless of their gender.

How this applies to prepping and long emergencies: Women and men will have to split up duties and although as I said before, size and strength come into play, there will be a lot of things that women need to do that they are used to men doing. Girls should not be discouraged by women or men to not learn good survival skills, get into better shape for a long emergency, learn to butcher, hunt, fish, etc. Remember that years ago women used to do a lot of those things anyway because they had to in order to survive. Assigning somethings as masculine or feminine is actually a modern thing. Women have long been farmers, leaders, and in some societies they had a lot more rights than the history books teach.

Teach your girls, don’t discourage them. They will be better prepared for what is to come over the years.

Taking out anger and frustration on the innocent is bad

After my mother left she had two more children. My sisters are 6 and 8 years younger than me. I like to spend time with them when I could. Since they grew up a mere few blocks away and our grandmother lived next door, it was pretty easy to see them. I wanted them to be able to come over and hang out. My Dad was fine with this and I was actually surprised he took such a considerate attitude about it and asked him about it and he told me that “those kids are innocent, they didn’t do anything wrong, why should I treat them poorly?”

That’s my Dad though. He was not going to deny me time with my sisters just because my mother ran off and had other kids while still technically married to him. A lot of people don’t deal with ½ siblings and step family issues that well. He would talk to my sisters and even buy them the same toys as me at times when it seemed like something they would like. We actually didn’t have that much money to live on back than either.

How this applies to prepping and long emergencies: During tough times it can be all too easy to find a focus point for your anger or take it out on whoever is conveniently around. This is not helpful and during an SHTF situation, being too full of anger and frustration can lead to foolish decisions that get you or someone you love, killed.

My Dad also got in trouble during Vietnam for threatening other men in the US Army because they kept dunking a Vietnamese girl’s head under water that didn’t have any information to give. I have no doubt he would have escalated the situation if they didn’t stop but they knew he meant business. He got dropped a rank for this and didn’t regret it a single day. The lesson here is that you need to not let yourself become a monster or lose your humanity even if you are in the middle of SHTF.

I should stop this post now. I could write a book on all that I have learned growing up with my Dad. You’ll hear more of it in future posts, even if I don’t mention him exactly because it is impossible for what he taught me to not come through when I write and think about all aspects of prepping and survival, especially a lot of the more savage subjects.

Were you raised in an unconventional household? What did you learn from this? Did you have a war veteran parent? What did they teach you?

Samantha Biggers can be reached at samantha@backdoorsurvival.com

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5 Responses to “Lessons Of A Father: Survival and Life Lessons From A Single Vietnam Veteran Raising A Daughter”

  1. I’ve read your column off & on, usually depending on the interest in the title. I always thought your column revealed wisdom beyond your years, cause you looked too young to harbor the knowledge you shared. Now I know! Your dad is a ‘Namie. I also served the year after he did in the ‘Nam. Evidently in the same AO. Give him a big hug for me, you’re lucky to have had him for a father. Mark my word, his lessons and wisdom will continue to keep you alive.

  2. I wasn’t a combat Marine, but I did serve in ’69-’70 in an artillery battery. We were always on a ‘base’ with supporting armaments (105’s, mortars, and big guns). I jokingly refer to our job as: “we fired at targets” and then, when the enemy noticed, “we became the enemy’s targets”. We took a lot of incoming! We supported many of the troops in the field. All the things your Dad taught you are just what people need today. Mass shootings seem to be more prevalent and one reason is that morality is no longer universally taught by parents or our education institutions. People without faith have little / no purpose in life, and that is very sad and troubling.

    PTSD is quite common, not only amongst us veterans, but also in civilian populations caught in traumatic circumstances. Count your blessings!

    The reason for my commenting at all was because of the picture of the C-ration of ‘Beefsteak’ at the beginning of this article. I don’t know if that was your Dad, but I know the reason that person is smiling so broadly is that he got a GREAT choice and didn’t get stuck with Ham and Limas (aka Ham and M—–r F—–s). Yeech! Low man on the totem pole got what was left in the case of 12. I’m reminded of the water situation as well…there’s nothing quite like drinking from a plastic canteen and getting that plasticky taste in your mouth–it’s worse than drinking from a hose on a warm day. God bless your Dad!

  3. This is such a well written article that I’ve printed it out for my granddaughter to read. I, fortunately, had a grandfather who had similar advice for me. I had been through 2 stepfathers after my father left when I was 3 years old. My mother had 2 more children and none of us ever thought of each other as being step brothers and sisters however, we always knew how we ranked in the family and I was dead last. Things changed about the time I was 27 years old and had started my own family and I’m really glad that I ended up becoming close to my mother but never close to my stepfather. Can’t win em all!

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