A long view of Veterans Day
I always enjoy going in to schools as a reporter, partially because my first job reporting had me focusing on schools and education in Keokuk, as well as Hamilton and Warsaw, Ill., across the Mississippi River and occasionally across the Des Moines River into Kahoka, Mo.
Then there was my 21-month break from the newsroom, when I was a student myself again for six months and then taught high school in Wayne County one year.
Education has a prominent place in my heart. I admire and respect good teachers, and enjoy students.
I also admire and respect good military service members of all branches, all ages. Those two groups of people came together Monday at Fairfield High School’s annual Veterans Day Program.
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I grew up in suburban post-World War II where dads drove the one family car to work and moms mostly stayed home. Yes, my father had served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II, but he never left stateside. My mom’s brothers also served in the war, but they lived at the north end of the west coast and we lived at the south end, and contacts were few and far between.
I was born six months prior to the Korean War cease-fire. It would not be until my high school days when the Vietnam War invaded my American conscience.
My mom was overprotective of her four daughters and always warned us to not date sailors or Marines — something she had done in Tacoma during World War II — but didn’t want us to experience in a suburb of San Diego, home to plenty of sailors and Marines.
After high school, I moved to San Francisco for college.
My mom needn’t have worried about any interest on my part in dating military men. In the 1970s, military members were the un-coolest people around, in my adolescent brain. I gravitated more to the anti-war protestors though I wasn’t intense. I just wanted to have a good time in college and earn a degree.
So it was a great surprise to me that I ended up as an Army wife for many years.
Of course, I fell in love with a man from Keokuk who worked in live theater in San Francisco. It was only after dating a few years he announced he’d enlisted in the Army.
He left San Francisco for a visit back to family in Keokuk in the summer of 1979, prior to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. He invited me to visit, and I took the train from Oakland to Chicago, where he picked me up and drove me through the September countryside of the Midwest for the first time.
We married at the beginning of a new decade, in January 1980, and his Advanced Individualized Training out of basic was in San Francisco’s backyard — Monterey.
We lived a year in Monterey, and I loved driving along Pebble Beach, watching Pacific Grove’s Monarch Butterfly Parade and wandering around John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. This was pre-Monterey Aquarium and waterfront development days.
The Presidio of Monterey, where my soldier was taking a year’s worth of Russian language for work in the Military Intelligence Branch, wasn’t overly Army-like. My ex-husband was a private first class, or E-3; but at chapel, we made friends with lieutenants, captains and colonels to the point of sharing dinners at their homes and babysitting their kids and jogging together in the early mornings.
We next moved to Fort Devens, Mass., for a few more months of training. Now, I was in reach of Boston, Brookline, Salem . . . and this English lit major visited and walked around Walden Pond and visited Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Mass.
My love of history appetite was fed by tours of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library in Springfield, Mass., and visiting Lowell, Mass., known as the cradle of the industrial revolution in the U.S.
We saw the Battle of Bunker Hill site, watched the annual re-enactment of “the shot heard ’round the world,” in Concord, and walked Harvard’s campus and Boston Common.
We walked the streets where Paul Revere’s horse galloped and visited The Old North Church.
A visit to Salem, home of America’s “witch trials,” felt disturbing even though it was a spring sunlit day at the ocean.
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Leaving Fort Devens, we drove south along the east coast, through Rhode Island and making stops in N.Y.C., for a ride on the subway and a trip to the top of the Empire State Building. That spring of 1981 was my first visit to anywhere on the east coast and I loved driving across the Brooklyn Bridge and riding a Staten Island ferry, seeing the Statue of Liberty.
We drove south all the way to Florida before turning west for our next duty station, Fort Hood, Texas.
In 1981, Fort Hood was known as the largest military installation in the free world – Cold War language.
We rented an apartment off post and I got a civilian job on post. Early morning jogs in the pre-dawn chill gave me encounters with live armadillos grazing on roadside grass and sightings of shuttle flights low on the horizon in the starry sky.
It was Fort Hood where my love and appreciation for military ceremonies, flags, music and getting up close to tanks, helicopters, jeeps and trucks began. That continued through our stay at Fort Benning, Ga., when my former husband attended officer candidate school — lots of pomp and ceremony there.
And throughout the rest of his active duty days, at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., Fort Rucker, Ala., and Fort Campbell, Ky., we attended parades, field days, change of command ceremonies, Army balls and Army birthday parties, which coincide with Flag Day June 14.
Our children, born in 1983 and 1984, grew up climbing on tanks and troop carriers, sitting in cockpits, listening to Army bands and watching soldiers run. They knew when to stand, when to be quiet and when to dance to the music.
Ceremonies also could be heartbreaking; pilots’ funerals at Rucker and Campbell … and the biggie, the Gander, New Foundland crash Dec. 12, 1985.
A chartered flight was bringing 248 U.S. soldiers back to Fort Campbell after six months of U.N. peacekeeping duties in the Sinai.
Fort Campbell neighbors, wives and children were already at the gym with balloons, flowers and banners and “home for Christmas” on their minds when word came about the plane crashing on takeoff for its last leg home. All passengers, the 248 soldiers, and eight flight crew members died immediately in Gander.
A few days later, then-President Ronald Regan came to Campbell and he and his wife Nancy, greeted the families, sharing prayers, hugs and tears.
A public ceremony was held a different day outdoors. It was a bitter cold December gray day with thousands of Fort Campbell soldiers lined up on a field while speeches were made and salutes given.
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It wasn’t until Desert Storm began in January 1991 that I would feel so low and scared again. Even the bands’ send offs for soldiers couldn’t lift my spirits. We watched as troops began leaving Fort Huachuca in August 1990 for Desert Shield and saw Saddam Hussein on TV with his “human shields.”
One bright spot was the return of respect and appreciation for military members.
I had never seen, and only learned years later, about Vietnam vets being spat upon and abused when returning from war. The knowledge horrified me.
The 1991 Gulf War somehow broke that stranglehold of vilifying the soldier, and yellow ribbons were in abundance.
My soldier deployed to Saudi Arabia in January 1991 and returned in May 1991. This was pre- email and cell phone days. He was only gone four to five months, but it was during the bombings and gunfights and threats of chemical weapons and biological warfare … and I saw the previous wars and families in a new light.
In World War II, service members were away from home three to four years at a time! A letter could take six weeks from writing to delivery, I’ve heard.
In Vietnam, soldiers served a year of duty and were shipped in one at a time, rotated into units.
Now, the Army sends units that have trained together and lived together, all together into deployments.
How did those previous generations do it?
Our children were in primary school; I only watched CNN after they went to bed.
I never imagined my son would grow up to serve two tours in Iraq a generation after his father. Now, he is the dad of my first grandson, who is 6 months old. I cannot fathom that this baby could one day go to war. We need this to stop.
Why did our young daughter grow up to marry a Keokuk man who enlisted in the Army and eight days after their wedding, shipped off to a year of duty at Guantanamo? He returned safe and sound, and they had a year of living together before he was deployed for a year’s tour in Iraq.
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The Fairfield High School Veterans Day Program added a feature I had not seen before.
The school invited staff and students to share photos, names and relationships of family military members. I loved it.
We saw a slide show, or PowerPoint, of soldiers, Marines, Air Force and Navy members, men and women, from World War II through Operation Enduring Freedom and in between.
A not-so-great-sound recording of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” had to play twice through for the number of photos shown.
I can be cynical and a skeptic at times. I attended many a Veterans Day ceremony at Keokuk Middle School and for several years after 9-11, it played Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning.” This song really bugged me with the line, “I’m not sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran.” Isn’t a school the very place where people learn the difference?!
But “God Bless the USA” had me the first time I heard it in 1984 at Fort Rucker, Ala. I couldn’t believe a song so patriotic about military was written and played on everyday radio in my lifetime – and then gained popularity and was practically the anthem of the Gulf War. Good move, FHS.
What was most remarkable to me (getting back to the “My Veteran” feature slide show Monday morning) was the number of photos belonging or connecting to the same names, over and over. It seems once a family member serves in the military, it spreads.
Looking at my own family, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. But some patterns are not apparent when close up.
Thanks for the long view, FHS staff, students and administrators.
Thanks for the long view and America, military personnel.
– Diane Vance is a Ledger staff writer