Growing up, military and patriotism were big parts of my life because of my siblings.
While my kids already ask about Santa’s arrival, on this chilly November day just after the elections, a different holiday is on my mind: Veterans Day.
I grew up in a big family with five older siblings in the military, so patriotism started at an early age. When I was just a kindergartner, I visited the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO for the first time. My brother, David, and sister, Sue, both attended the Air Force Academy at that time. Only five-years-old, my memories of the whole trip are hazy, but I do clearly remember sitting in a large auditorium waiting to see my brother, David, shortly after we arrived.
Seeing him in a uniform for the first time, I was a bit awestruck, intimidated, and completely proud. He suddenly seemed much older to me than the brother that I used to watch run down the driveway to the school bus. I remember not being sure if it was ok to hug him while he was in a uniform. At five, I understood just enough to know about some formalities surrounding military protocol, and I definitely didn’t want to get in trouble with the Air Force.
I also remember during that trip listening to a Cadet Choir performance, and hearing them sing “America” by Neil Diamond: “Got a dream to take them there, they’re coming to America.” I was pretty little, but I remember totally loving that song. My memory might be incorrect, but I recall standing in the back of the auditorium, probably after a bathroom trip, staring at gigantic paintings of important past Air Force generals, and hearing that song. The Cadet Choir was amazing, and hearing the words of dreams, liberty, and the promise of America, sung by Air Force cadets in their uniforms made my five-year-old heart swell with patriotism and pride for my brother and sister that were in the Air Force Academy.
My family made several trips to the Air Force Academy while I was in elementary school. I watched my sister, Sue (who is “Sues” to our family) graduate. At the end of the ceremony, the cadets throw their hats up in the air, and it’s customary for little kids to go down to the field to catch the hats and keep one as a souvenir. Sues, always planning ahead, snagged an extra hat saving us from fighting the other kids. I’m guessing we were one of the few kids around that had genuine Air Force cadet hats in our dress up box.
Two years after seeing Sues graduate, we headed back to see my brother, David, graduate. I soaked up all of it. I remember being impressed by cadets parachuting out of a plane and landing on the field in front of us, and felt extreme awe as an SR-71 plane flew low and slow over our heads. My uncle, Frank, David’s godfather, went along on the trip. He bought the book Into the Mouth of the Cat while he was at the Academy, about Lance Sijan, an Air Force hero from the Vietnam War.
After he finished the book, I picked it up and started to read it on the long ride back from Colorado to Minnesota. As a third grader, the book was a bit too challenging for me to read, but it hooked me on loving to read books about POWs’ experiences. I’m continually impressed by soldiers’ tales of survival and perseverance in extreme adversity.
A few years later during the Gulf War, my sister, Sues, served there in the Air Force. My sister, Karen, was also in the Gulf War serving in the Army, as was her husband, Gene. As a 7th grader at the time, I don’t know if I fully grasped the magnitude of the situation, but I certainly recall the flood of support for all the troops: care packages abounded, letters flooded to soldiers from elementary kids, and everyone wore ribbons in support. At our house, we had two yellow ribbons for my sisters tied around our birch trees. Those ribbons aged over the winter, but remained there until my sisters came home.
I knew that many Vietnam soldiers returned home to less than a hero’s welcome, and to me it felt like the nation’s remorse over not supporting Vietnam soldiers turned into an overwhelming flood of support and national pride for the Gulf War troops. And as a 12-year-old, I have to say I felt kind of cool to have two sisters serving in the Gulf War.
One of my proudest, most heart-swelling moments to be an American and have family in the military happened in early spring of 1991, just after the Gulf War ended. On that sunny spring day, I stood in a hangar at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma waiting for my Air Force navigator sister, Sues, to come home from the war.
I remember sitting on bleachers, waiting for her plane to come in. Red, white and blue banners adorned the industrial-looking hangar, and patriotic music played. A plane full of returning troops landed before hers, and I watched families and loved ones reunite, saw tight hugs being exchanged, along with smiles and tears.
The song “God Bless the USA” comes to mind with this memory, “And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” I don’t know if I heard that song that day, or if that song just brings that scene to mind, but that song is almost always associated with my memory of that day.
As I watched the families reuniting, waiting for my sister’s plane to come in, I felt the swell of emotion all around. I remember sitting there “itching” my eyes, hoping that nobody would notice that my 7th grader self had tears in my eyes about it all.
Finally, my sister’s plane landed. She had no idea that we’d driven down from Minnesota to Oklahoma that day for her homecoming. We held up our “Welcome home, Sues” and “MN Welcomes Sues” signs, figuring she’d certainly realize it was us, since there probably weren’t any other Minnesotans down in Oklahoma waiting for their “Sues.”
I saw my sister walk out of the plane and into the sunshine, wearing her olive drab flight suit. Even from a distance, I recognized her smile and walk. It seems like someone else in her crew first noticed us and pointed out our signs to her, since she hadn’t been expecting anyone there to meet her.
I don’t remember the details of all the rest, but I know it involved plenty of hugs, smiles, and laughter. It was a great homecoming.
Growing up, military and patriotism were big parts of my life because of my siblings. With my brother John in the Navy, and Sues and David in the Air Force while I was little, I always had ready made pen pals. Later, Karen and Mike both served in the Army. Postcards and letters in the mail from far off places were a pretty common event, as was eagerly counting days on the calendar waiting for one of my brothers or sisters to come home to visit.
As a kid, I felt a great pride about my siblings and extended family in the military. I still do. But as an adult, my perspective has broadened. It’s amazing to me to realize that I’m now older than my sisters were during the time of the Gulf War. As a mother, I look at many enlisted soldiers that recently served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I see kids just out of high school football and volleyball uniforms. I see kids that could be my own in not too many years. And as a mother, I see mothers and fathers in uniform, hugging their little kids goodbye for months at a time, and my heart goes out to them. My own brother-in-law has served four war tours in the last ten years with a young family at home. I know it takes a toll on everyone involved.
I won’t ever know what it’s like to be in a war. For every soldier, there are a thousand stories, most of which are never heard by families back home. I do know that I’m so proud of the military veterans in my family, and thankful for all the countless veterans in our nation. Thank you for serving our country.