“It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.”
— Zell Miller
In many homes, birthdays or anniversaries are a big deal. Holidays like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are also a time to honor someone on their special day. In my house, when I was growing up, lots of special days were celebrated. Still, one particular holiday meant more to my mother than all the rest — Veterans Day.
On that day, we knew that she wanted breakfast in bed, cards, and acknowledgment.
In 1952, just a few days after graduating from high school and turning eighteen, she left everything and everyone she had ever known and joined the Navy. Her first stop was in Bainbridge, Md., where women trained to become WAVES, which stood for “Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.” From there, the Navy sent her to Pensacola Naval Air Station
She would often say that the three years she spent in the Navy were the happiest days of her life; remembering what my brother and I were like as children, I can totally believe she had a better time as a WAVE than she did as a mother.
At the end of World War II, 22,000 women served in the US military. During the Korean War, just a few short years later, 122,000 women served their country.
My mother’s classmates and friends couldn’t believe she would enlist and go off to the Navy instead of staying home and doing something typical for women at that time. She wanted to work on planes, near the ocean, and have adventures that didn’t include a small town and a house full of kids and dishes.
She had some extraordinary times, too. She would tell us stories about going through basic training and how every time you got something wrong, you got a demerit. 20 demerits meant you had to repeat boot camp.
She graduated with 19 demerits because one of her bunkmates in the barracks stood on a hairpin that had fallen on the floor next to my mother’s sea bags. It was during an inspection and would have kept her from moving on, but she explained that’s how it was in the military — the people in your unit always had your back.
Her job in the Navy was working at the air station, keeping flight logs, and booking “space-A hops” for sailors traveling on leave. Eventually, she was a crewmember on a plane that took VIPs and senior officers to events. One particular admiral was not supposed to have a lot of candy, and his wife would clean out the plane’s galley and get rid of it. My mother always had a small stash that she would put back and let him know, “This is for your guests, sir, OK?” The day she was discharged, he sent her a huge box of candy as a gift.
This year, on Veterans Day, maybe we need to do a deeper dive. Instead of just lip service or the requisite social-media posts of “Thank a veteran!” we could ask our friends who have served what they’d like? Do they have stories they want to tell or memories to share? Maybe their service was complex, and they’d rather not have all the commercial moments of generic sentiment?
It’s important to remember, on Veterans Day and every day, that our service members are unique individuals. They aren’t just soldiers or sailors or Marines or airmen. They are people who chose a path not many do, and for better or worse, they walked it.
Especially when we look around at world events right now, it’s easy to see how much worse off we’d all be without the contributions of our veterans. They delivered the reality of what the Founding Fathers wrote down. We owe them so much more than a day off.
Brenda Kelley Kim has lived in Marblehead for 50 years, and is an author, freelance writer, and mother of three. Her column appears weekly.