This post is originally from Memorial Day 2016.
Today is my 40th birthday- woo-hoo! Turning 40 and how it feels was supposed to be our weekend post. But, honestly, I couldn’t think of anything interesting to write, which must mean 40 is no biggie. 😉
So, as I tried to figure out another post for this gorgeous Memorial Day weekend, I realized how obvious it was.
Americans across the country are firing the unofficial starting gun for summer with fat juicy burgers and good company, first spins on “the lake,” and good times all around. Actually, they’re FREE to kick off the summer season however they want.
And although it should be, that freedom is not God-given. It has been fought for and paid for with human lives. And the sacrifices of those selfless and courageous Americans are what we need to remember this weekend.
As a kid, I fell in love with America. I remember being so impressed with the history of a young country born out of the desire for freedom. Remember the Melting Pot? An open door to a place where anyone’s dream could come true if they worked hard enough? God, how I loved that idea! I don’t care what anyone says; that still exists. And if you think it doesn’t, you’re not working hard enough. Our grandparents and those who came before them paid in sweat and back-breaking work to build their lives and our futures. It’s beautiful, and it makes me proud to be an American.
Without the sacrifices servicemen and women have made, I might never have had the chance to be so impressed with this amazing country. Like in other countries, being a girl, I might have lost the right to an education, and building the American dream could have been eradicated during either of the World Wars.
No matter on what side of the aisle you sit, you must respect the brave service people who have given their lives first to bring freedom to this country, then to protect it, and now to hold up the ideal of liberty for all humankind. The last is the most important; because if you don’t defend what you hold dear, it can be undermined and potentially destroyed.
I’ve never fought in any war. And I’ve never lost anyone in a war. So, I wanted to get perspective on Memorial Day from people to whom it means the most; people who have served in the military.
The first person I asked is one of the coolest guys I know, my father-in-law, retired United States Airforce Lieutenant Colonel John Garrett Hennessy. “Mr. H.” as my sister-in-law and I call him, is 80 years old but more hip than some of my contemporaries. This guy flies between time zones regularly and adjusts better than I could. He’s a laid-back, go-with-the-flow and enjoy-a-couple of martinis type of guy. And so it’s hard to think of him in any military role.
But he was.
Mr. H. flew 68 combat missions in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during the Vietnam War and was assigned to the Thailand and Cambodia Desks from 1972 to 1975 at the Pentagon. He put his life on the line. He’s pretty impressive.
A young Mr. Hennessy at Langley AFB, Virginia 1957. USAF T-33 Jet Trainer.
Mr. Hennessy, of course, recognizes the importance of Memorial Day as a day to remember that liberty isn’t free, and we should give thanks to those who have served. He also brought up an interesting point that the next generation will be impacted when they see their parents paying tribute to those who didn’t make it back from our recent and ongoing conflicts and also to those who did return.
But, the biggest takeaway I got from Mr. H. was from his personal experience. I feel lucky to have had him share with me.
When a military officer dies in combat, the family must be notified by a uniformed officer in the same service as quickly as possible so they do not learn about it from the press or media.
Sometime in 1967, an F-4 fighter jet was downed over North Vietnam, and the pilot, unmarried and in his late 20s, was killed. The young man’s mother and stepfather were in Northern New Hampshire in a small mountain town. Mr. Hennessy was an Air Force Captain on the faculty of Colby College. He was the nearest Air Force officer.
The young man’s mother worked as a waitress in a relatively large restaurant in that small town. It was mid-afternoon, and she had just started her shift, which would go late into the night. Because of the media, he couldn’t wait for her to finish work to tell her. The protocol was to get her home or, the next best option, sit her down and gently describe what happened.
Mr. Hennessy walked into the restaurant in full dress uniform, wings insignia, ribbons, etc., nervous and standing out like a sore thumb in a small New Hampshire town. He looked around and asked an older guy bussing dishes if he could point out the pilot’s mother. He did and then said that the man in the far corner waiting on a table was her husband.
Mr. Hennessy recalled the man was not his birth father but his stepfather. So, he breathed a sigh of relief, thinking they could devise a strategy to get the mother back home ASAP.
Mr. Hennessy approached the man, introduced himself, and explained the situation. He sincerely apologized and said he desperately needed help getting his wife back to the house.
The man’s eyes started to glaze over. He dropped a full tray and slumped into the empty bench seat at the table he was clearing. He had passed out.
Since he slumped and didn’t drop into the middle of the floor, most didn’t notice. But enough were alarmed and didn’t know whether it was an argument or an accident. A couple of people helped as the stepfather started to revive. By this time, his wife came over and was very concerned about her husband and wanted to know what had happened. Mr. Hennessy suggested they go outside to get him some air, and he would explain.
Once outside in a crowded parking lot, she asked the young captain if he was a friend of her son. Mr. Hennessy said in a way yes, but that he wanted to get her home to explain.
The stepfather, absorbing the weight of the situation, tried to coax his wife to go home. But her reply was, “Are you crazy? We’re both working, and it’s crowded!”
Looking at her husband and seeing Mr. Hennessy in his full uniform, she realized something was wrong. At first, slowly, but then quickly, she started to get frantic. Panic set in, as it would for any mother. She asked if Mr. Hennessy had information about her son.
Standing in the parking lot, he tried to keep her calm. He tried to get her to a safe place. But, the situation went downhill quickly. She wanted an answer right then and there about her son.
Despite her husband’s pleas, she refused to go anywhere.
Mr. Hennessy had no choice but to tell her on that afternoon, in a wide-open space, in the middle of her shift, while she stood anxiously in her waitress uniform, that her son was killed in action on a mission in Vietnam while piloting his F-4.
He then asked if they could go to her home, and he would try to answer any questions she had. Through her pain-filled tears, she asked if he had any details on the crash or aftermath. He did not.
But he told her they could discuss what happens next and answer other questions. She told him she had heard enough that night and that she and her husband were going home- alone.
What a horrible day for those parents. What an impossible and heart-breaking job for Mr. Hennessy. What I took from this story is that the sacrifice these men and women make is also extended to their families. They are gone for months at a time, and sometimes they never return. We should also be thinking of the families of our servicemen and women this weekend and what they give up so their loved ones can honor our country.
In the Hennessy family, being military was a family affair. Mr. H’s only sibling, Gordon Hennessy, is equally as cool as his big brother. But, when they’re together, Gordon might argue he is a bit cooler, considering he outranked Mr. H in the military. He was a full colonel. 😉 Only, he served in the US Army.
Uncle Gordy, as I know him, is a fantastic guy. I would consider myself lucky if either of my boys grew up to be like Gordon Hennessy.
For 25 years, he served in the US Army, which included two combat tours of duty during the Vietnam War. As a kid, Gordon remembers his Aunt Kathleen was especially aware of Memorial Day’s true reason and meaning. He never really knew why she had that insight, but it is a memory that made a lasting impression.
Perhaps it is because Gordon experienced firsthand that war is a terrible thing and the cost is tragically high that he was impressed by his Aunt Kathleen. Serving in combat, even in relatively safe positions, was an interesting and valuable life experience but one that he would not choose to repeat. It is very distressing when he thinks of the wars he can remember and the ones he experienced personally.
Very distressing because hundreds of thousands of young men’s and women’s lives were cut so short in war. Gordon pointed out, “They were just ordinary people like you and me.” Only these ordinary people were extraordinary because they answered their country’s call to serve.
He also pointed out that the vast majority were not politically motivated. They answered the call because they loved their country and felt it was their duty. Memorial Day is celebrated for those airmen, sailors, marines, and coastguardsmen who served and died in our country’s wars.
Gordon rightfully says that we all owe an enormous debt to those who made that ultimate sacrifice for their country. Memorial Day is celebrated to ensure we do not forget what that means and the sacrifice our fellow Americans made for us.
Retired US Army Colonel Gordon Hennessy
Two valuable perspectives from our veterans. But, as I thought about Mr. H’s comment about the next generation and today’s conflict, I wanted to talk to an active serviceman.
And I had one that was pretty spectacular.
Winique Payen is a former employee of the former company I owned, Mercury Moving. He’s a great guy. I was sad to see him go, but especially sad because of the reason. He was called into duty in Afghanistan with one young daughter and another on the way. That was just about three years ago. He’s just returned from Kuwait and will have the opportunity to visit with his two daughters for a few months before he goes back on duty from October 2016 to October 2017.
Here’s the fantastic thing about Winique’s Service. He wasn’t born here. He’s from Haiti. But, he chooses to serve as a Sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve. Why?
While he admits it can be culturally challenging, since childhood, he has dreamed of serving what he calls “the greatest country, which opens its doors to anybody willing to contribute and help America progress.”
Do you remember that melting pot? How about that American Dream? Hearing Winique’s words put such a smile on my heart to know that the reason I fell in love with America is still alive.
I learned from Winique that only 1% of the US population joins the military. And he says his decision to join that one percent was one of the best decisions he’s ever made. It’s already opening up so many new paths in his life.
Winique says he puts the freedom of this nation before his own. How about that? He feels great respect and appreciation while wearing his uniform, knowing he is standing to defend our and his nation. This is selfless service.
Luckily, Winique has never seen combat or its casualties as a deployed serviceman. But, being on active duty, he understands the risks. And, for those who have sacrificed their lives on the front line for the safety, freedom, and security of the American people, he “applauds their souls for having the personal courage to die for us.”
Memorial Day means a lot to Winque. As he pointed out, it also means a lot to all the soldiers and veterans to honor and respect those who fought, died, or went missing in combat.
In summing up our conversation, Winique said, “It is also an honor for me to follow the heritage left by our previous veterans to protect and defend America proudly as a soldier. The military is the strength of America, and we are the strength of the US military. Encourage and honor those who serve and fight for this country. GOD bless America and the US military.”
I do honor you, Winque! Thank you so much for coming to our country, becoming part of it in the most powerful way, sacrificing time with your family, and joining in that brave 1%. You are the epitome of the spirit of America, and I applaud you!
Mr. H and Uncle Gordy, thank you so much for your service to our country. I’m lucky to know and call two such great guys family.
So, as I turn 40 years old on this Memorial Day Weekend, I am acutely aware and grateful that everything I enjoy came at a cost, all the way back to the Revolutionary War. We hardly ever think about it, but that is the truth. Maybe Aunt Kathleen understood the gravity of our freedom, which is why the holiday was so important to her.
I’ve had a great weekend. Gardening, enjoying time with my two boys, sitting out late on our deck, eating cookies, and watching a movie. And tonight, as I head to dinner with friends, when I raise my glass and make a toast, it will be to the three brave and wonderful servicemen who contributed their thoughts to this post and, most importantly, to all of those people who have given their lives to help keep the American Dream alive.
Thank you so very much.
Enjoy the holiday weekend- Be safe and have fun!
Mr. H, Uncle Gordy, and Winique, thank you from the bottom of my heart. XO