Staff Sergeant Robert Townsend's children never had the chance to know their father, but today they couldn't have been prouder to call him dad.
Sgt. Townsend was honored in a ceremony at the National Security Agency/Central Security Service for his service during the Vietnam War. A cryptologist in the U.S. Army Security Agency's 10th Radio Research Company, Sgt. Townsend and his fellow officers provided signals intelligence crucial to the defense of the U.S. Special Forces base at Plei Me against attacks from Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. On November 4, 1965, Sgt. Townsend was killed by an enemy sniper while trying to protect his fellow soldiers.
Katheryn Mitchell was just 2 years old and her brother Dan Cavanaugh 11 months old when their father died. An older brother Richard, now deceased, was four years old at the time. Growing up, the children knew he was an Army sergeant and received medals for his service, including the Purple Heart, but nothing about his role providing signals intelligence during the war.
"We were in disbelief," said Cavanaugh of learning about his father. "It's been 53 years since he passed. We had no idea. I'm not sure mom knew either."
Sgt. Townsend's widow, Mary, remarried, having three more children. Nearly 20 family members, including Sgt. Townsend's great-grandchildren, attended the ceremony in his honor. Mary passed in February 2018, one week before the family learned about the planned event.
"I know that she would be proud of all the sacrifices he made for our country," Mitchell said of her mother. "She never forgot about dad, and kept him alive through us kids. She may not have been able to join us today, but I believe that they are both with us in spirit."
Mitchell added that if she had the opportunity to speak with her father, "I would tell him that I love him. I would also thank him for being brave and how proud I am to say that he was my father, and that he never left my heart."
Sgt. Townsend's name was engraved on NSA's Cryptologic Memorial Wall during its dedication in 1996. Today, the wall displays the names of 176 Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine and civilian cryptologists who died in service to the United States from World War II to the present. Every year in remembrance, stories about individuals listed on the wall are declassified and shared with family and loved ones in tribute to their service. To learn more about Sgt. Townsend, please read his profile.