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Connecting With My Military Father

Air Date 05/26/2015

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Author Dennis Mansfield tells his powerful story of reconciling with his estranged father who was a veteran of several wars, and of discovering the remarkable history behind a World War I helmet he received as a childhood present from his dad.

Episode Transcript


John Fuller: He served in World War II, in Korea and in Vietnam, yet despite all of that service to his country, his children didn't feel like he served the family very well. This is "Focus on the Family" with president and author, Jim Daly. I'm John Fuller and we have a really incredible story for you today. It's the story of a man who didn't do so well at home, but the story doesn't end there, Jim.

Jim Daly: Hm. And that's so good, John. We always like, like Paul Harvey used to say—

Jim and John: --"the rest of the story."

Jim: And we're gonna hear that today. What I like about our guest's story is that so many of us live in that boat. We didn't have great fathers. I had no father and I know that many, many of you didn't have good relationships with your mom or your dad. And this program today is gonna speak to your heart.

As children, I mean, we expect for parents to take care of us up to some point, you know, that we'd get food and shelter. But one of the most important ingredients is something that so many of us miss as parents and that's love. Children have an insatiable appetite to be loved and that's a good thing. And today we're gonna hear a brilliant story of how that all came together for this man.

John: Yeah, it's great story of God showing up and doing a remarkable work of restoration. Our guest is Dennis Mansfield. He has written a number of books and one that we're gonna be keying off of is called Finding Malone.


Jim: Dennis, welcome to the program.

Dennis Mansfield: Ah, Jim and John, it's good to be here.

Jim: Hey, you've got so many great stories and I know we're gonna uncover a few of those in the next few minutes, but let's get to the heart of it. Your dad, as John said, served the country so well, yet at home it wasn't what you were looking for in a father. What happened to your heart and what was goin' on in your home?

Dennis: You know, it's a strange thing when you look at your father in uniform and he served at the end of World War II, Korea and then the first part of Vietnam. And here he was fighting the tyrants of our world, but when we opened the door to see him, he was a tyrant to us. It was brutal.

Jim: What did that look like, just to paint that picture for all of us?

Dennis: Sarcasm, anger, slapping, physical abuse. You know, the fathers of the '40's sort of birthed the sons of the '60's. And there was a real rebelliousness that came out of the order of his military bearing.

Jim: When you think about that, I mean, it's a profound statement to say that fathers of the '40's helped give birth--

Dennis: Yeah.

Jim: --to the sons and daughters of the '60's. That says a lot. What do you think was going on that generation that caused them to behave and act the way they have?

Dennis: I think part of it was the sheer act of not knowing that they would even be alive. And so, the fear that drove them, drove them in a way that was sacrificial at times. I think that in Band of Brothers, for example, Ambrose nails it when he says that the war in World War II was not won by Eisenhower. It was won by a small section of 10 or 12 men at a time, who cared and loved each other, and then buried one another as they died on the field. So, there's that hardness, that coarseness.

And again, my dad came in at the end of World War II, but he was deployed in Korea. He saw the death in Korea. It hardened him. I was born at the end of this Korean time period and he brought that home with him.

Jim: So, that coarsening just occurred.

Dennis: It was unbelievable.

Jim: It was part of the military experience. We're talking to many people, Dennis, that are in the military. Maybe they're in tough situations still and that environment can harden your heart because of the things you see, the things you have to do. You come home. It's hard to flip that switch. Before we continue with the story, I mean, as that child in a military home, what would you say to a military mom or dad?

Dennis: Well, I remember my dad once told me, we had seven kids in my family—Irish-Catholic family. And he said, "You know, if I spent half an hour with each of you, my day would be taken over." The idea that the forced amount of time had to be spent, that's a fallacy. I think if I could speak to the military personnel it would be, not so much if you have a large family that you feel you have to cordon off a period of time to be with them that's exhaustive and therefore, you won't do it all.

But to do what Deuteronomy 6 says and that is, to just take them with you. Have them go with you when you go to the commissary. Have them be with you at the PX or BX.

Jim: Hang out.

Dennis: Hang out. And if you do that, they'll remember that till the day that they're in their 50's and they're a grandfather like me. They'll remember that and do it well as they follow you.

Jim: Well, that's well-said. Your wife, Susan, I have not met her, but I would like to meet her someday. She sounds like quite—

Dennis: Amazing.

Jim: --a woman and—

Dennis: She's an amazing woman.

Jim: --she did something. It wasn't clear in your book, Finding Malone and we're gonna get to that story, I wasn't clear if she let on to the fact that she had done this. And that was to invite your dad, who in many ways it sounds like, was estranged from you.

Dennis: Yes.

Jim: You weren't communicating—

Dennis: Absolutely.

Jim: --but she invited him to stay and your mom overnight on a cross-country trip they were taking.

Dennis: Yeah.

Jim: When she disclosed this to you, what did that make you feel like? And tell me what she said to you.

Dennis: I was furious. I mean, here's a guy that I didn't like, let alone bring into the sanctity of my home. This was a man I did not love, let alone bring into my heart.

Jim: Would you say you hated him?

Dennis: I think I did and I think that captures it well, so that when I'm watching her on the phone talking with someone, "Uh-hm, yep, that would be fine. Sure. Next Tuesday, that would be great." I'm thinking, who's she talking [to]?

A class reunion. Okay, somebody, class reunion, what? And when she hung up, she looked at me and she said, "Your father's comin' here." And I looked at her and I said, "What in the world are you doing to me? I don't want him here. How dare you?" She said, "No, how dare you? How dare you take this pain that you've had and poison your children?"

And I was just blown away. I just stood there. She's 5'3". You know, I went to West Point. I had drill instructors that were big and tall and brutal, okay? Nothin' like Susan and she did it in love and I heard her clearly.

Jim: Yeah, I mean, when I read that, how powerful to have a spouse who can go toe-to-toe with you like that, to say, "Hey, you're poisoning your own well."

Dennis: Yep.

Jim: And you need to be a model for your own kids. That's what caught me. What she was, it sounds like what she was worried about was the fact that your own children were seeing you despise your dad. And she was worried that they would grow up and learn that and despise you.

Dennis: To despise me. And I think because she had honored her own mother through Dennis Rainey's book, The Tribute, which deeply touched us. And Dennis is a man I have great respect for. Susan did that. She wrote a tribute and then came to me and said, "You need to do one for your dad."

Now one thing is inviting this ogre into my house, right? Now you want me to write - a tribute? What do you want me to say? Thanks for not killing me. Thanks for not breaking all my bones. I mean, I don't get it.

And she said, "You know, you need to settle down. You need to settle. She gave me a yellow pad and a pen and she said, "Right now you need to go up to our bedroom upstairs. You need to kneel down and you need to write the things that God gave you through your father."

Jim: Wow. Again, I mean, just incredible guidance coming from your wife.

Dennis: A one-two punch.

Jim: Yeah, she's an amazing person. Let me ask you though, it sounds great. You go upstairs to the bedroom. Um. What happened on that Tuesday when he showed up? I can't imagine the awkwardness, the stiffness of that. What happened emotionally for you?

Dennis: You know, Jim, believe it or not, the real awkwardness happened when I did go to my bedroom, when I did kneel down. And I laid the pad out and I went, this has got to be a cosmic joke. Lord, God, why did You give me this man? You erred somehow. The inerrant God erred here when He gave

Dennis Mansfield Bill Mansfield as a father. And that was the awkward time.

When the Lord met me is when He shaved off the awkwardness. And I began writing and I could not believe I started writing - one letter, one word. All of a sudden, I kept writing and writing. And within minutes literally, within probably six minutes, seven minutes I came down. So that, when dad and my stepmom showed up on that day, I was ready for it.

Jim: How did it go?

Dennis: You know, the proverbial thing when you meet people. The welcome in, the (sic) so forth. But the funny thing was, he said to me, he says, "Den, the bags are all put away. Let's go the movies." "What?"

Jim: Yeah, almost like an order.

Dennis: Yeah, "Let's go to the movies." And I said, "What?" And he said, "We're gonna see Braveheart." I said, "Okay." So, this puts it in the timespan. It was 1995; it's Father's Day of 1995 ironically. And we went to the movies. And afterwards he says, "Let's go to the supermarket. We're getting' a slab of ribs. I'm barbecuin'."

And it was just order after order, ironically, four of them that he laid out while we were spending that afternoon. There were the four parts of the very thing that I had thanked him for when God brought those to my mind and I wrote them into the tribute. He didn't know it. I didn't know it. God knew it. Then we had dinner.

John: Mm. Dennis, I can feel the tenderness of your heart as you relived that moment. What were those four things that you wrote down? I mean, how did you leave the bedroom a changed man, willing to see your dad in a different light?

Dennis: You know, through that afternoon, it was the barbecue, the fact that he taught me how to be a barbecuer. He's a great barbecuer. He taught me the language of life through film. And I've been honored to write screen plays, to be involved since then. But he taught me how to appreciate film as parable.

He taught me the value of travel and I've traveled and been honored to go all over the world. And then he taught me the value of leadership, that when you lead, you are in the front. It may be difficult and the more arrows you have will probably be in the back, not in the front when you lead well and when you lead hard.

And so, those things, those four things surfaced in the process of the discussion, because when you debrief a movie like, you know, Braveheart, you can't help but deal with the betrayal of Robert the Bruce and all the characters that were in that, we debriefed that as we were barbecuing.

We debriefed traveling to Europe. We debriefed leadership 101 and 201 and 401.

Jim: I mean, think of that, going to see Braveheart with a veteran, military veteran who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Dennis: Yeah.

Jim: I'd like, I wish I would've been there to hear what his thoughts were.

Dennis: It was at the end of the movie, he was weeping. My son, Nate was on one side of him and I was on the other. And all we could hear from him was, "Where have all the men gone?"

Jim: That's a warrior's view.

Dennis: Yeah, who would die for the family?

Jim: Dennis, let me ask you, and that's profound. I don't want to just move—

Dennis: Sure.

Jim: --but to soak in that statement, that moment. It had to be really something from a guy comin' without a dad. I would have loved that moment myself. But in the reality of it, this is still a man that physically abused you. All those emotions, how in the world, and I'm thinking of the person who's not there yet, hasn't been able to forgive and has been suffering and has suffered and there's bitterness. We hear often, from women particularly, had very difficult relationships with their dads, that you know, maybe did horrible things.

Dennis: Sure.

Jim: On the lighter end, it was being hit or being verbally abused. And they write us and they are seeking, you can feel it in the words that they write, they are asking, seeking, wanting to have that mended. It's the biggest hole in their heart. And it certainly applies to men, as little boys then, as well. But what would you say to that person? How do you simply sit with a legal pad and make that happen? That's not the magic. It's not the legal pad.

Dennis: No, no, it isn't.

Jim: What happens?

Dennis: I think there's two parts to it that our listeners really must grab hold of. One is, if their parent, grandparent, adult is still alive, to write that. And if you can see them, go see them. I literally had my daughter calligraphy it, my son frame[s] it and then before we ate, I read it to my father at the table. I read it to his face. So, if that's a possibility, feel free to do that.

If they are passed away, write it. Forgive them. Forgive them. Honor them. Give tribute to them for what they did do that was right, because they brought you into this world. You're alive because God used them and it was no mistake.

If we're fearfully and wonderfully made in our mother's womb, we also are fearfully and wonderfully made because our father was part of the process.

John: Well, you can hear more of Dennis' story and find some of those steps that he's suggesting right here at Or call us if you'd like to talk to one of our counselors. Jim, those caring Christian counselors here are an invaluable resource for our listeners and the number is 800-A-FAMILY.

Jim: That's good … a good reminder, John. We are here for you. That's why Focus on the Family exists and it's great for people to come on the program, Dennis, like yourself, share that story. But again, I can feel that penetration that you're having in the hearts of people that have suffered because of their dads.

Dennis: Oh, yeah.

Jim: And they're looking for that way through it. A story that I've shared often, John and it just seems right to share it again, was a woman who grew up probably in her 50's. Her dad was in his 70's or 80's. And they were estranged for 30 years maybe. And she had decided it was time to mend the relationship. And on Father's Day or for Father's Day, sent him a card with a letter of regret saying, "I have blown it; forgive me." They called her a few days later and said, "Your dad passed away unfortunately. We found your card, but it was still in the mailbox. He had not read it."

That's the urgency in which we're talking about today and I love the practical steps of how to go about—

Dennis: Thank you.

Jim: --mending that before you get that phone call that your dad's gone. Don't' wait.

Dennis: I can tell you this: that the remaining time period until he did pass away, Bill Mansfield became my dearest friend, my closest ally and I loved him with all my heart. That's reconciliation of Christ. That's the reality of giving tribute. And because Dennis Rainey helped Susan, Susan helped Dennis Mansfield. Dennis Mansfield helped his dad.

Jim: Boy, that's a powerful story, powerful story. Let's turn that corner and again, the title of the book, Finding Malone. People are probably saying, okay, how does Malone fit into this story? Help us understand what Finding Malone is all about.

Dennis: You know, when you're 15-years-old and you have a father that's a military NCO/tyrant, the idea of getting gifts, I always thought, "Hm, what's he gonna give me, a hand grenade, you know?" I mean, what? Do I pull the pin or does he?

And yet, my dad had this unique knack of finding gifts. He gave me a World War I dough boy helmet when I was 15. And I opened it up and again, you know, seven brothers and sisters were all looking around. And they all looked at me and [said], "What is that?" I looked at it and went, "Wow! Look at this thing."

And inside on the leather netting was "AJ Malone" written in pen and I remember thinking, "Oh, my gosh. This was worn in the war." This is the greatest gift I've ever been given. And I thanked my dad. And it's one of those awkward hugs, where the dad is stiff and like doesn't put the arms around. But I hugged him anyway.

Jim: Can I ask you a question about that?

Dennis: Yeah.

Jim: 'Cause that, you know, some boys growing up in that environment, to get a gift from a military father, who has not treated them so well, would not lean into his vocation. Why did you?

Dennis: I think I leaned into history, not into his vocation.

Jim: Okay.

Dennis: And I thought, this is another man who might not be as brutal as my father. This is a soldier who fought when dad was on the sidelines. This is a man who wore this helmet. You could tell it'd been worn and it was ancient.

What I didn't know, till years later, was that my favorite gift that I kept on the shelf when I married my bride, Susan, that I kept on the shelf when we had our children, that I even kept when I was a cadet at West Point, on the shelf early on, that this helmet would end up being used by the Lord as a part of the reconnection with my father. And then we would find who the owner actually was.

Jim: How did that come about?

Dennis: It was remarkable. I'm a businessman. I've always had small companies. For 10 years I had the honor of being with Focus on the Family's Family Policy Council. But it was like having your own company. It was a separate entity, as they all are.

But I had this business where I helped ex-addicts and ex-inmates. And I just had the freedom to help. Our school, Christian school in Boise, is a home-school coop. And the principle of it asked me to come in and help teach a history class, 'cause the history teacher had just quit and I was the only guy with a business who didn't have to worry about a boss, because I was the boss. So, I came in.

And I said, "I'll do it under two conditions. One is, that it's "pass-fail." And two is that we have fun." I said, "If you're not interested in doing that…now 'have fun' means, we're gonna take history and go backwards."

So, in the process of going from World War II to World War I, I was trying to help educate the 16-year-old juniors in high school, 13 of 'em, what the difference between the two wars were. And I came home and I was scratching my head. And of course, my bride, Susan has been a teacher for many years and she said, "Well, why don't you use the helmet?" And I--

Jim: What an idea.

Dennis: --I said, "Well, where is it?" She goes, "Hang on." And I'd forgotten about the name. I'd forgotten every [thing] about it. She comes out of the basement holding this World War I dough boy helmet and she says, "A.J. Malone is written in it." And I went, "We're gonna find out who this man is."

So, we used that particular semester and that particular portion of the history time to find Malone. And it was a slow go, guys. World War I was a long time ago, zero, nothing.

Jim: No pops—

Dennis: Nothing.

Jim: --on your database search.

Dennis: Nothing. And at one point, my father said, "Now wait a minute. When World War II started, the only uniforms they had were World War I uniforms. So, the U.S. Army wore the dough boy helmets. They…"

Jim: In the early days of World—

Dennis: Early …

Jim: --War II.

Dennis: Even before. So, immediately all my little 13 16-year-olds started hunting. It was Google search, it was military records. And we found out that [in] 1938, Anthony J. Malone had entered into the United States Army and was a medic. We found out where his base was. We found out all the details.

And these kids were alive. Their eyes, they're like, "We've gotta find Malone." And so, my dad helped me help the kids with some computer stuff. My father was brilliant in the computer industry. And we ended up making the phone call, finding that Anthony J. Malone had passed away eight years before, but his widow, his wife, Mary was still alive.

Jim: Oh, my goodness and you called her.

Dennis: We called her. We actually called the daughter first. The daughter thought it was an Internet scam, you know. (Laughing) I said, "No, I don't want any money to go to Zimbabwe," you know. (Laughter) I have a helmet for you.

Jim: I have a helmet for you. (Laughter) Well, okay.

Dennis: And she ended up connecting us with her mom and then we were stuck, because we wanted Mary to come to Boise, Idaho where the school is. She was too frail. So, now we were caught in a really difficult thing. How do we get that? What, do we FedEx it? Here's your helmet, you know. No.

Jim: Didn't seem appropriate.

Dennis: Didn't seem appropriate. It was too much of a national treasure to do that with. So, believe it or not, a United States congressman, Walt Minnich, heard of our story. And he got ahold of me and he said, "I have 300,000 frequent flyer miles. Let's get all your kids goin'. And so--

Jim: Hey, there's the best thing a politician has done lately.

Dennis: --I tell you what. We weren't of the same party. We weren't. But we were friends. And then Carol Cloyd from United Airlines and U.S. Air said, "You know, the policy for these airline things is, you gotta do 'em one at a time. You can't do 300,000 on one airplane to go someplace." Except she did. So, between Walt Minnich and Carol Cloyd, we were given the thumbs up.

And the kids had raised money for the hotel rooms and we got it together, guys. And it was, I could see the Lord's hand all the way through it. And then we departed.

Jim: What was that moment like when the kids were able to present the helmet to the widow of Malone?

Dennis: We were in Middletown, Connecticut and we pulled up and there were (sic) just the whole neighborhood had shown up. It was an Italian neighborhood, because we found out later that Malone was really Malonè.

Jim: (Laughter)

Dennis: And so, the neighbors all knew him and he knew it. So, we had this Italian unbelievable luncheon of honor and dignity. And we had 80- and 90-year-old men and women who were part of the neighborhood who came.

And then I had the honor of actually giving. We wrapped the helmet, it was beautiful wrap. Gave it to Mrs. Malone. She undid it. And watching her eyes, guys. I'm watching her eyes as she looks down and her husband's name and she takes her thumb and she just touches his name like she somehow could be connected with the man that she loved, who had died and yet, who was alive in her, who was alive in her story in love.

Turns out he was a medic who had served in every single major conflict of World War II.

Jim: Including D-Day.

Dennis: He landed at D-Day in this helmet. He was a part of North Africa, Sicily. He was remark [able]. He actually wore the helmet into Hitler's Wolf's Lair and pulled Hitler's Nazi flag off of Hitler's bedroom wall and folded it up and kept it and no one had seen it in this family until these 13 16-year-old's from Boise, Idaho brought a helmet and they brought out his footlocker. And when they did, they opened it up. There, he was a photographer during World War II and had captured all these moments in photos and mounted them. And nobody had seen 'em since 1945.

Jim: Goodness, that's a history lesson.

Dennis: It was unbelievable.

Jim: I want to take your history class. (Laughter)

Dennis: Well, I'll tell you, I think it impacted their lives.

Jim: Dennis, it seems there's such parallels here. What do you think the final answer is to these two somewhat disparate paths that you've walked, Finding Malone and then the relationship with your dad?

Dennis: I think on the last analysis what I learned is, that in Finding Malone I found myself and that was a good thing.

Jim: What does that mean? Fill that in for us.

Dennis: I found that the commitment to service, the losses, the things that didn't make sense early on, all make sense at the end. You know, why would I have such a difficult dad? Why would I have a difficult life?

And the bottom line is that I've become a man who is far more sensitive and caring and committed to people who are broken. And that has served Christ well through me being available—

Jim: Hm.

Dennis: --in my brokenness.

Jim: When you think of the Scripture, "Suffering leading to perseverance, perseverance, character, character, hope," this story is rich with that Scripture. Does that mean something to you?

Dennis: Jim, I think that, that Scripture captures the story and it captures my life, because I have hope. And it might take a long time. In my case it took many, many years. I was 39 before a healing happened. I'm 59 now. And my Pop's been gone two years with the Lord.

And so, that's what I learned from my dad, from the military and to remember the good and praise it.

Jim: Dennis Mansfield, author of the book, Finding Malone, you have really taught us some great lessons. John, I'm looking at a picture—

John: Uh-hm.

Jim: --of the military man, Malone. Let's post that on the website so if people want to get a look at the hat—

John: Sure.

Jim: --and see him as a person. Maybe you can say a prayer for his widow and if you would allow us, let's post a picture of your dad.

Dennis: I'd be honored to.

Jim: And you have a hat sitting on the table here that recognizes his service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. What an amazing figure your dad was in so many ways, even with the shortcomings. Thanks for bein' with us.

Dennis: Thank you, guys. What an honor to be here.


John: Hm. Well, Dennis, you've shared so much and for those who are at odds with their dad, there's some strain there, you've given us a road map for some reconciliation. And I so appreciate that.

And along the way here, if you've felt a need to do something to reach out to your dad, or another person in your life that you're really having difficulty with, please know that our counseling team is here to help you with that. And the number is 800-232-6459. 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY.

And you can get a copy of Finding Malone when you call. Also, we'll send that book to you when you generously support FOF with a gift of any amount today. Just call 800-232-6459 or donate and see those photos at

Our program was provided by FOF and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team thanks for listening. I'm John Fuller inviting you back tomorrow. We'll have Kathi Lipp here sharing some fun ideas to make family memories this summer as we have more trusted advice to help your family thrive.

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Dennis Mansfield

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Dennis Mansfield is an author, a conference speaker and a business coach. He has written or co-written four books: Beautiful Nate, Finding MaloneDo or Die Time and Benghazi and Beyond. Dennis helped lead the fight for traditional family values for almost two decades while working in association with Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and the Promise Keepers movement. He and his wife, Susan, reside in Idaho and have three children and two grandchildren. Learn more about Dennis by visiting his website: