It’s Veterans Day. For a lot of people, that just means a day off from school, or work, but for those of us who have, or have had, a Veteran in our life, it means so much more. This post is dedicated to the memory of my favorite Veteran, my Dad, who gave over twenty years of his life in service to our country as a member of the United States Air Force. It is also dedicated to all Veterans, past, present, and future, for their service, their allegiance, and for the sacrifices they made along the way.
When I think about Veterans Day, I think about my Dad. He enlisted on December 8, 1947. It never occurred to me until this minute that he joined just 3 days after his 17th birthday! He was so very young, but determined to serve his country. Instead of taking just a few steps into his future, my Dad took a flying leap! I can’t imagine what it must have been like, to leave the only town you’d ever lived in, or to leave your parents and siblings, and your girlfriend. Long distance phone calls were expensive back then and letters took many days to get where they were going so there wasn’t the ease of connection that there is today. I wonder what emotions were present as he left for basic training? Excitement? Fear? Dread? Happiness? Sadness? Pride?
From the little community of Bunner Ridge, my Dad went to basic training in San Antonio, Texas. I imagine a long and hot bus ride to get there, with the windows down to let in a bit of air, a lot of dust, and the overwhelming smell of livestock. I imagine plenty of thinking time to second guess a signed and sealed, irreversible decision. I think about boys from all over the United States slowly becoming friends despite their differences. For some reason, I can see them sharing a pack of gum or, more likely, a chaw of tobacco, or a cigarette. I think about trying to fall asleep while worrying about upcoming deployments, and wondering if you’ll ever see your new friends again. I think about the young man who shared his canteen of water on a hot training mission, who might not come home at all.
I think about my Dad going home on leave during the summer of 1950, when he married the lucky lady who later became my Mom. They began their married life living in Texas, where my brothers were born. Sadly, their first child died shortly after his birth. When I think about Veterans Day, I think about how hard that must have been for them with their whole family back in WV. I think about how heart wrenching it was to have to move afterward, and to leave their buried baby, with no chances for a flower on the grave and a whispered “I love you” to mark his birthday. I think about doing what your country needs as opposed to what your heart needs.
I think about the amount of work involved when, with a toddler in tow, they packed up and moved to St. Mihiel AFB in France. I think about leaving that toddler with someone you barely know, when you go into labor while your planned sitter is on vacation. I think about all the military families who pitch in to help each other in the absence of blood family. I think about the military communities that are constantly changing even while the heart of it stays the same. I think about moving back to the States, this time with a toddler and a baby, first to California, then to Washington, D.C., to Illinois, and, finally, to McChord AFB in Tacoma, Washington, where I made my debut. Every time they moved, they left behind friends and small pieces of their lives. They’d make new memories that crowded out old memories until it just became a jumble of places and people.
When I think about Veterans Day, I think about being thousands of miles from home and, when your father is dying, you travel to his deathbed by yourself because there isn’t money to take your family. I think about my Mom, stepping into the role of a single parent every time my Dad flew out on a mission, for weeks, or months, at a time. I think about her babysitting for other families, paying it forward, that sense of duty to a family that encompasses all your military friends. I think about shared meals, shared laughter, and shared tears. About saying goodbye too many times.
Sometimes, I think about what it must have been like to fly supplies into Korea, or Vietnam, and return with a plane full of coffins. My Dad didn’t talk about it much. I think about the men who picked up the bodies and the doctors who fought to save the wounded. It’s just so unbearably sad, and yet there are Veterans who can’t go to sleep without reliving a horror we can’t begin to imagine. I think about coming home from the worst nightmare of your life and having anti-war picketers trying to shame you for your service. All I can say is this: shame on them! If you’re a Veteran, hold your head up high! The Americans I know, and love, appreciate your service! Our lives are better because of your courage to step up and serve your country.
When I think about Veterans Day, I think about the Christmas cards my Mom still gets from people whose lives were connected to our family through my Dad’s military career. I am thankful for each Veteran, and family, who touched the lives of my family along the journey of being military.
My Dad served his country during the Korean War and the early years of the Vietnam War, and during his career, he worked as an air policeman, an aircraft mechanic, and a flight engineer. He retired as a Tech Sergeant on July 1, 1968, when he moved his family for the last time, back home to West Virginia. Where things had changed. Where friends had moved on. Where family had grown into strangers. Where there wasn’t a job. Where the school curriculum was years behind where your kids were academically. Where another new life was slowly built on the remnants of an old life. Where the new life grew roots and became a good life. Where it became home, once again.
When I think about Veterans Day, I think about a lot of things, but mostly about how proud I am of my Dad for his service, and of my Mom, and my siblings, for taking in stride a life that was a few steps beyond normal.