The many faces of Veterans Day

We celebrate Veterans Day this week and when you’re a military academy parent with no military experience of your own, it hits differently.

I remember being at a football game for the first time after my son entered the Naval Academy. Standing for the national anthem, I found myself choking up. A friend turned and said it’s different now. The same with things like Veterans Day. First off, I learned to keep these days straight:

Armed Forces Day: Always the third Saturday in May, this is when we celebrate everyone currently serving in any of our six military branches (Air Force, Navy, Army, Marines, Coast Guard, Space Force). This is one where we can celebrate our cadets.

Veterans Day: Always on the 11th of November to mark the end of World War I when at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the fighting ended with the signing of an armistice. This is the day we celebrate any living former members of the military.

Memorial Day: Always on the last Monday of May. This is the day we honor all former members of the military who have passed on. While there’s some debate, I tend to side with folks who agree saying “Happy” Memorial Day doesn’t really work.

My experience with the military has all been second-hand, starting with my father, then continuing with my former father-in-law, and now with my kids. They have all been distinctly different.

My former father-in-law wanted nothing to do with the military (read more about his story here). He had left Pennsylvania’s coal region to seek his fortune in Philadelphia when the Army “invited” him to join the war in Korea. Not enamored with the idea but knowing there was no escaping the long arm of the U.S. government, he decided to volunteer and join the Navy. By the time the Army got around to tracking him down, he was through basic training and deployed on the U.S.S. Hancock.

Rich would tell stories of his time in the Navy, usually funny ones, but he saw active combat, and every so often, he would tell stories about some dark times. He was once sent off on a small craft to rescue some Marines frantically retreating under heavy fire into a lagoon. He helped them onto the boat which filled quickly. Desperate Marines, up to their chest in water, clung to the sides of the craft, threatening to submerge it. An officer ordered Rich to get the Marines off the side. He pried the fingers of one Marine off the craft and after looking into his eyes, walked back to the officer and told him to get someone else to finish the job. The story gave me chills and Rich grew silent after telling it. I can only imagine what else he saw.

My father, on the other hand, had a wholly different Korean War experience. When he was 13, he left home for good and when he turned 17, he decided he wanted to join the Marines. Of course, they told him since he was still a minor, he’d need his father’s signature. My dad called his father, who used to a string of expletives to tell him what he could do with the paperwork. My father returned in kind, explicitly telling his father exactly what he could do to himself. My father officially became a criminal that day, committing forgery and signing the document himself.

Dad could not have had an experience more different than Rich’s. He found himself in 29 Palms, California, which most anyone will tell you is hardly a garden spot, and given his driven nature, found himself a staff sergeant in short order. The stories I’ve heard are that Mom didn’t like it all that much and longed to leave. Well, one day someone handed Dad orders to go to Hawaii. He said he excitedly went home and told Mom the good news. She began crying (tears of joy, of course) and started packing. Dad went back to the base to inform his commanding officer.

His CO took one look at the orders, looked up at my father, and said something along the lines of, “Staff Sergeant Smith, if you think I saved your sorry ass from going to Korea all these times for you to go to Hawaii, you are sadly mistaken. You will finish out your time in the Marines right here.”

My kids really only knew my father through stories of my childhood but spent a lot of time with Rich, so they had some background on the family’s military history. Why did they both choose not only to pursue a path leading to becoming a military officer but do so through a military academy? I wish I knew. I wouldn’t label the story of either grandfather as inspiring.

Whatever inspired them, there they are, my son a Lt.JG underwater in parts unknown aboard the USS Florida and my daughter working her way through life as an Air Force Academy cadet. While they are not among those we celebrate on Veterans Day, it still hits a little differently, knowing that someday they will be and will have their own stories to tell.

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