Veterans Day seemed a bit more sacred to me this year. After a contentious election and reshuffling of chief military officials, I thought about our connections to those who serve on the home front or abroad, often in life-altering, terrifying conditions, and how their service shapes our nation.
I grew up in a family who served in several branches of the military. We lived near an Air Force base known for the 2nd Bomb Wing, the oldest bomb wing in the Air Force, and the base’s participation in global defense. I’m accustomed to seeing fighter jets and B-52s flying about as I drive along Interstate 20 and hear my mother issue commands to pilots oblivious to her orders. “Straighten those wings, boys!” “Not enough altitude for that move, mister!” The war industry is an integral part of that economically challenged community, blending and bleeding into the fabrics of community life, schools, churches and neighborhoods. A military presence is pervasive.
My earliest memories of family war stories are about my Uncle Ray, the oldest son of seven children. My mother tells me his status as a federal employee in Lima, Peru, exempted him from the draft. When he received news that his younger brother enlisted in the Navy, Ray felt compelled to sign up. Within six months, he enlisted in the Army/Air Force, married his sweetheart, trained as a tail gunner at a military base in Iowa and died when his B-17 Flying Fortress crashed in a farmer’s field. We are told this training was one of many classified preparations for the D-Day invasion.
My mother, the youngest child, was 11 years old when her family received a telegram about her brother’s death in May 1944. They received his body in a sealed coffin with little details and were discouraged from inquiring. Loose lips sink ships. Mother told me her father did not speak for three months. She and her mother cried for days. Homefront casualties were not highlighted for security reasons. This made mourning a lost child even more complicated for these Gold Star families.
Sixty-two years after my uncle’s death, my family and family members of the 10-person flight crew gathered at the crash site to honor our loved ones and learn about their lives. We were convened by two local veterans who spent a decade researching the event and locating the crew’s family members. Citizens in the small farming community hosted us at the local VFW Hall with a display of each crew member’s life, a shared meal, a memorial service and an unveiling of a plaque with the name of each man lost that day. Jell-O salad never tasted better. Each soldier’s name became a person with relics from his life. A wedding picture. Cufflinks. So much more than a homefront casualty statistic on a tally sheet.
“Mary Alice, 19 years old at the time, was among the first to reach the plane’s fiery crash site.”
Two witnesses to the crash told us about hearing a struggling engine and seeing a plane go down. Mary Alice, 19 years old at the time, was among the first to reach the plane’s fiery crash site and counted nine incinerated bodies where crops once stood. The tenth body, the tail gunner, was thrown apart from the others and spared from the flames. She found Uncle Ray.
I witnessed Mary Alice and my mother try to make meaning of that unforgettable day, speaking in present tense, the language we use when reliving an event that still horrifies us. It was as if she, then in her eighth decade, was still a young girl engulfed in that inferno. I think she needed to tell my mother her story as much as my mother needed to hear it.
We were given parts of the plane that farmers still find when they till the soil for spring planting. Each tiny piece was numbered and identified, sealed in plastic bags. When I opened one, I smelled smoke from a fire that burned long ago. By the time we learned about the lives of each crew member and met their families, all my mother’s immediate family members were dead or dying. She was the only recipient of this compassionate gift of closure.
“When I opened one, I smelled smoke from a fire that burned long ago.”
I asked Stuart Flynn, one of the two event organizers, why he committed a decade of his life to honor soldiers who died near his home. “Because you need to know,” he said. “Because we all need to know.” The silence ended. The truth tellers were loyal veterans who wanted family members to see and hear our loved one’s stories. There’s something healing about the truth, no matter how hard it hits you between the eyes.
I remain grateful for the efforts of those who made this healing day possible. This radical, selfless gift of generosity provided comfort and closure that eluded 10 families and their descendants for more than 60 years. The veterans worked tirelessly with personal resources to make sure we received the narratives in a loving way. They told us not only of our loved ones, but the crew they trained with, flew with and died with. They gave us a safe place to receive horrific truths without asking anything in return. They exemplified the biblical directive to care for the stranger. Their efforts were as transforming as their words. They thought it was the right thing to do.
It’s been 14 years since that gathering. My mother and Mary Alice exchange letters and gifts as sisters do. They are weaving this early life story into the arc of their lives now, no longer alone in terror and sorrow. My two sons, living longer than the years Ray was allowed, see physical similarities in their great uncle and claim him as a part of their own legacy.
“I am more sensitive to topics we prefer to avoid as a country, particularly when silence can be costly to others. We need to know.”
This story continues to teach me. I am more sensitive to topics we prefer to avoid as a country, particularly when silence can be costly to others. We need to know.
We need to know the plan for reuniting children separated from parents at the border. We need to know there will be a coherent health plan that addresses the pandemic. We need to know the intentions of leaders who deploy our military in active duty without a clear strategy and exit plan. We need to know the plan for feeding children who are listless and unable to learn because they are hungry. We need to know where transgender teenagers can safely belong when their families disown them. We need to know that people who are incarcerated are provided opportunities for a new beginning. It is easy to be distracted by chaotic breaking news and lose the trail of those whose suffering is forgotten or filed behind the next sensation.
The two veterans and their gracious community taught me about patriotism. Their love of our country included caring for strangers in a way only they could do. Their love of our country meant challenging our country’s rules. They were not seduced by nationalism, the blinding monovision that insists we love America or leave it. We needed to know. They told us what we needed to know in a loving way. It was the right thing to do.
Paula Mangum Sheridan recently retired from Whittier College as an associate professor and program director of the social work department. She is a licensed clinical social worker and supports voter accessibility and the rights of people without homes in her community.
A video version of this story produced by the author is available on YouTube.