My First Hero; Why I Care So Much

I’ve shared a few stories now about why I’ve taken such an interest in the Veteran community on my website, and my blog.  The truth is, I would consider caring for Veterans part of the fabric that makes me who I am.  I was born into a family of Veterans; one of whom’s submarine arrived in Pearl Harbor the day the US entered WWII, and another who flew overseas in an era when Veterans were not valued the way they are today. When I was a child, my grandpa warned me never to marry a man in the military, but I did anyway.

When I was 14 my grandpa Charles, or “Pop” as I knew him, came to stay with us for the summer while his wife traveled to her native Whales.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I will be forever thankful for the time I got to spend with Pop that summer. This was a visit that would leave a lasting impression and photographic memory for me, and heavily impact the course of the rest of my life. 

Up until that visit, I knew my grandpa as a quirky outdoorsman. He was just a guy who attended the University of Nevada, Reno, right after high school; a fact I was unaware of when I decided to attend UNR myself. 

During his time at UNR he grew to love the slopes and remained an avid skier for the rest of his life.  He was a lover of wine and dogs; just like me. As an old dude, he got up unnecessarily early every single day and religiously made the same breakfast; a freshly grated potato for hashed browns, two eggs, and toast so hard even the dogs wouldn’t eat it.  He enjoyed wandering around the desert in Moab Utah, photographing the beauty of nature around him, then coming home and forcing everyone to watch slideshows of his photos during the holidays. 

You’d never catch Pop outside without his hat, unless he was removing it momentarily to balance a beer bottle on his head at lunch.  He carried his camera everywhere he went. He always made sure we got to enjoy some ice cream at the end of the day, and let us play in the mud when mom said not to.  He was the coolest; he was my hero.

Aside from his love for nature, dogs, and wine, what I believe he loved the most was jazz; listening to it and playing it.  There wasn’t a wind instrument he didn’t excel at playing, another trait we had in common, but he settled on the trumpet as a favorite and played in a Jazz band out of Santa Cruz for much of his adult life.  He would sit for hours, sometimes the entire day, and zone out to the tune of his favorites.

It was during one of these jam sessions while he was visiting that summer that I decided to sit with him for a time.  For some reason that day, he decided to open up to me; it was the one and only time I ever heard him speak of war.

Pop was a well decorated combat Veteran.  He had been awarded six times over for heroism and meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight, and extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy.  He flew in WWII and the Korean war and went on before he retired to teach the next generation of Navy pilots out of Pensacola FL. 

Something in him wanted to talk about war that day, but not in the way I would have ever expected.  He spoke to me that day with a great deal of sadness in his eyes.  He reminisced of the exquisiteness of Asia in particular; their culture, the craftsmanship and superiority of their goods, the beauty of their people and their art.  He had collected a great deal of art while in Japan, which sadly was all lost with my mother’s home in the Paradise Camp Fire in 2018.  He got emotional talking about war, how it destroys the people who reluctantly become a part of it, both military members and citizens.

I had always known that my grandpa Pop was a war hero, but what I didn’t know about was the sadness he had carried with him for all those years.  I was too young to respond appropriately to him that day, but I figure maybe that’s why he chose me to confide in.  It wasn’t too long after this visit that Pop started to suffer severe complications of Alzheimer’s and Dementia, and we lost him before I finished high school.  As his mental health failed he clung to his jazz and his ice cream. I would like to hope the disease that took him from us helped him to forget some of the sadness that burdened him all those years. 

My grandpa was a very hard working and fortunate man.  He was intelligent and educated and had a successful career during and after his military service.  After retiring from the Navy as a Lieutenant Commander in 1963, he went on to work at Stanford Linear Accelerator and retired comfortably in Aptos CA. 

There are many Veterans that served long arduous careers and were unable to cope with the lasting effects of their war time wounds, both physical and mental.  Many Veterans from Pop’s generation and the next were alienated and ostracized for their participation in war, regardless the fact that many were not there voluntarily.  From my own research, I have come to find many of these Vets to be service resistant, meaning, they do not trust that governmental support services align with their best interests.  The system once rejected them, and they have not forgotten.  Some self-medicate with drugs and alcohol and fall into homelessness to support their addictions.  

I see a piece of my grandpa Pop in every Korean and Vietnam era Veteran I meet, and every part of me wants to help give them a glimpse of the amazing, dignified and accomplished life my grandpa led. They gave everything to make sure I had a safe place to call home, and now it’s my turn to do the same for them.

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