My family is full of people who have served in the military. Some did limited tours of duty in times of war, some have been career military and none of them like to hear about how proud we are of them. In honor of Independence Day, however, it's an appropriate time for them to sit back and recognize the rest of the family's need, as civilians, to express our appreciation.
This time around, I'm not going to focus on the family members with the most brilliant military careers, or the ones who have the most historic pasts, but on the three that I know best, and whose contributions have touched me most personally.
My mother will be the first to tell you that she was "just" an ROTC cadet in college. I will be the first to disagree with that "just". For starters, she signed up to the Air Force ROTC during college in the Viet Nam War era. Not only did this make her unpopular with a large quantity of her fellow students on campus, but women in the military weren't exactly warmly embraced at that time either. When she signed up, there was no women's Drill Team. Undaunted, she put in a lot of hard work lobbying to get one instated, then working at it until she was captain of a women's drill team that was so good their male counterpart would draft substitute members from it when they needed people for competitions. Her hard work was obvious and before she left ROTC, she was ranked third in the entire nation for Class 3 cadets. She took a lot of lumps to champion both our nation's military and women's rights at a time when neither of those paths were easy ones. For her hard work and excellence, she has earned my admiration.
No one earns a nod of gratitude like a veteran of one of the great wars. My grandfather is one such man. He joined the service during World War II and was sent to the Pacific Arena. He has told us that he was a member of the Judge Adjutant General's staff, but until the day he passed away, he would not speak of combat to us, except to say that he had to keep a loaded rifle across his desk. When he spoke of his experiences, it was only of the pleasant things - how beautiful the Philippines were and how much he'd like to go back some day in peacetime - or of the fun things. Some of our favorite family stories come from my grandfather. Apparently when on base, the soldiers in my grandfather's social circle experienced two states of existence: either they were on alert or they were drunk. While he would not talk about the first state, we got some marvelous mischievous tales of the second. On at least one instance, my grandfather was part of a drunken group that "midnight requisitioned" a jeep and went zooming about the airfield, pretending they were an airplane. Better still were the tales of rivalry between my grandfather's navy camp and the local marines. His proudest memory was of he and his buddies being able to steal a crate of eggs from the marines and having to eat them all quickly and bury the shells in time before the enraged marines came through and tore up their camp looking for evidence.
I got a chance to understand my grandfather better through the eyes of another family member, who is also a combat veteran. He has four medals and has been in Panama, the Gulf War, the relief effort in Somalia, and the peacekeeping effort in Bosnia and I know that he has seen combat in more than one of those areas. He will, with a mixture of glee and chagrin, tell how he got sent to Iceland for six months. While he was guarding a missile silo, a television reporter approached him and asked him why local soldiers had been issued live ammunition. When his response of, "Because they told us reporters might be in the area," was televised across the state, it earned him another interview - this one with his base commander. So much for that early promotion. However, like my grandfather, this family member will not speak of the serious things he's experienced and seen. When I asked him why, he thought for a long time before saying that people dying isn't something to feel proud about or to use as a source of glory. I know him well enough to know that his words were not in any way a criticism for the military decisions that put him where he's been, but rather an attempt to express respect. It takes a thick skin to not look at the enemy and see a person like yourself who knows he might die, but stands there anyway, either because he believes in a cause or because he feels he has no choice. Even in situations when one has minimal respect for the enemy, it seems better to say nothing at all than to risk cheapening the gravity of a situation where human lives must be bartered and sacrificed.
Thomas Paine once said, "What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly…. It would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated." The accomplishments of our friends and family in the military have not been without cost, and to all service men and women, past and present, in peace and war, we extend our admiration and our gratitude.