My grandparents stayed in touch with many of Papa's "old Army buddies"; a list of honorable men and their wives who stretched, literally, from sea to shining sea. At Christmas, there was a great production made of scratching out old addresses and scribbling in new ones before addressing the Christmas cards. But as the years ticked by and the gap between WWII and 1990's Christmases grew, more names were crossed out, left with no forwarding address. If Heaven had a zip code, I wonder what it would be. There were fewer Army buddy reunions to plan, less Friday nights spent playing pull-tab lottery tickets at the VFW. More names added to the WWII memorials. I wish I had been more interested in the stories told. I wish I could remember the snippets of conversation bantered between men who had shared a foxhole. But when I close my eyes, I can see their faces; smiling, sharing laughs, even though the most difficult of circumstances, the grim reality of war, is what brought them together in the first place. When Neal and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary after Shepherd, we were vacationing in Charleston, SC. After a full and exhausting day of sightseeing, we trudged back to our hotel, just in time for the manager's reception; a complimentary 3-hour cocktail service offered by many of the Hilton hotels. I collapsed onto the couch with a plate of chips in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. Looking around, I realized we were in the presence of an Old Army Buddies Reunion and, just like that, I was 5 years old again. But this time, I chatted with the wives, asked where they had been stationed and how long they had been married. I listened, I took mental notes and I soaked in the feeling of being with grandparents again, after so many years without them. Today's military (and the way in which they deploy Soldiers like Neal) creates a temporary patchwork of units, pieced together from different battalions to meet whatever needs arise. We don't go to Old Army Buddy Reunions. After being cross-leveled into units all over the country for 3 deployments, we barely remember many of their names. I can't even express how sad that makes me.
Although I was always aware of the roles my grandparents played during WWII and the life that was shaped by it afterwards, it was never as real to me, on a daily basis, as the modern US Army that employed my dad. Sunday nights were spent watching Hee-Haw while Dad shined his boots on the living room floor. His dress blue shoes were polished to reflection perfection. Most days he wore the standard BDU's, sometimes he wore the dress uniform. I never knew (or really cared) why. That was his job. Just like Mom wore dress pants and a button down to counsel her patients, Dad wore a uniform and boots. I never thought of him as "a veteran", although I knew he had served his time in the jungles. I knew an uncle that I couldn't remember had been killed in action during his tour in Vietnam. I knew his name was etched on a wall in D.C. I had done a rubbing of it in middle school. But that was a different war, unpopular for a myriad of reasons. Hate of the war became hate of everything associated with the war, even our country's own sons and daughters. Dad brought home a Purple Heart but he was never publicly proclaimed a hero. He kept his head down, his boots shined, his uniform pressed and his mind on the mission at hand. We screwed up as a country. We screwed over our Vietnam Veterans, but the greatest tragedy is, they never wanted a ticker tape parade. They just wanted a kind word instead of a hateful one.
This is the short version of a childhood that laid a foundation for my marriage to Neal. Although you would be hard-pressed to find a joke that hasn't been made about me basically marrying my dad, they are, in fact, 2 very different people who have been molded in a similar way by the Army. I met Neal during his first deployment to Iraq and while I was employed by a sector of the DoD that distributed supplies to units around the world. I knew a world of war stories and boot shine but none of it became tangible until the first time Neal didn't call from Iraq when he said he would. Minutes, hours, days. Five of them. Our last conversation had ended with, "I'll call you back shortly." That was the longest "shortly" of my life. He had gotten a call to command a convoy to Baghdad and it had taken a week to get up and back. Every possible scenario had played through my mind while I stared at that phone for 5 days. I was barely the girlfriend. Who would tell me if something had happened? How would I find out? There was no Facebook, no FRG, not even a phone chain that had my number. How had the wives done it for all these years? Revolutionary wives and foreign war wives and any family member of any troop member ever? How on earth did they do it?
Since then, we have survived 2 more deployments and become an Active Duty family. Our 4th move in 5 years is drawing near and we approach our military life as many non-military families live world-wide; with a sense of adventure and an open heart and mind. Sometimes we speak in acronyms. Occasionally, Neal answers me with "roger" and I find an entry on our calendar in 24 hour time. (I still have to use my fingers to count to any hour past 4 PM.) Neal is a 29-year Veteran who wears the uniform everyday but we don't talk about the war and we almost always forget to ask if there is a military discount. Army is a way of life for us everyday but it still catches us off guard when people say "Thank you." We have never known an ungrateful nation and yet it's always reassuring, comforting even, to hear someone express their appreciation for our voluntary effort. An airport of strangers clapping as a unit marches through the hall will still bring me to tears. Every. Single. Time. A token of anonymous support never fails to floor me. When a child bravely marched up to Neal in a restaurant on his lunch break, just to shake his hand and thank him for his service, I silently prayed that we would raise exactly that kind of son. We are a grateful nation and I hope we always will be. Today, my Facebook feed was a constant stream of appreciation for all of our servicemembers and their families. May we never forget. May we raise children who never forget.
From our family to yours, thank you for your support. As Neal is so fond of saying, serving in an all-voluntary Army and the stress and sacrifices that accompany the life are nearly impossible to endure without the nation's support. For us today, that meant a 3-topping pizza for $11 and a camouflage ice cream cone benefiting the USO. But it also meant a flood of kind words and positive energy. It meant finding new ways to connect to a community that has become our home and receiving their appreciation, although the permanent residents here are probably weary of our high turnover rate. And it meant finding ways to honor other military families and their sacrifices. I hope that as the military draws down and Veterans are forced out, we continue to say thank you. They should always have work, food, shelter and healthcare. Families of fallen heroes should have the same. There is no excuse to abandon our Veterans. Every day is a bonus, and we have our Veterans, who have stood bravely and selflessly in the gap, to thank.