This last month I had the pleasure and pain of taking my 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son on vacation to both Sea World and the San Diego Zoo. For those with littles you understand easily the amount of joy there is in seeing your kids' faces light up at sights they have never seen, or how infectious their shrills of laughter and excitement are. You equally know how challenging theme park tantrums, team no naps, and the exhaustion that comes with taking littles on vacations. It's not our first theme park vacation and it won’t be our last for sure. But this trip may end up being the most memorable - not just for me but for my daughter. And it had nothing to do with the theme parks.
I am the daughter of an honorably discharged US Army Captain. Growing up, my father never talked about his service and if I’m being honest, if it were not for my mother, I’m not sure I would have known he was a soldier. He was not ashamed of his service. In fact quite the opposite. He was proud of the work he had done in the military, the men and lives he had helped save, and how even after the service, it allowed him to still serve his country. But he was a Vietnam Veteran with many mental and physical scars that he never fully recovered from. He had a mortar round (bomb for those not familiar with ammunition) go off in front of him. By the sheer grace of God, he was in what they call the ring of life. This person size ring in the arch of an explosion where you will be safe, saved his life but cost him a good chunk of his hearing. He survived The Battle of Anloc, a place where very few walked out alive and the enemy used civilian women and children as shields, and a place he wasn’t even supposed to be. He’d switched his R&R (rest and relaxation) leave with a man whose wife was going to give birth shortly, and thus he ended up trapped in what I can only describe as one of the dimensions of hell on earth. And too, so many other near misses that could only leave one scarred. For a long time, there was such an awful stigma attached to being a Vietnam Vet. I, thankfully, never saw that part of our world, being born after much of the drama of the 60s and 70s became history. But I know it helped shape the keeping from sharing by my father.
When the series "Tour of Duty" came out, despite my young age, we would watch it religiously as a family. I think for my dad, it was therapy to remember that what he did, what he was asked to do, while a loss in the history books, was a win for serving his brothers in arms. Back in the days of having to watch TV when it came on and good old fashion VHS videos to record your favorite shows, my dad did in fact record every episode of the series. In hindsight, I think he may have regretted doing so because every summer vacation, I would watch the series. To this day I can quote lines from it. I did it so I could understand my father more. But I also got to see something else. The core of the show focused on the bond of the unit. I saw how soldiers were no different from anyone else that had a job. They went to work and did what their boss asked of them. They didn’t have a say in their tasks. But what was and is asked of our soldiers, of all those that put themselves in the line of fire to protect, is to be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, their life, for others.
It was with this epiphany that I made the decision to thank every soldier (and now law enforcement officer) that I saw. I would go out of my way to make sure I told them that I appreciated them and what they did for us. This became even more important after my father passed away. And it was with this in mind that I have made sure that I teach my daughter and son to do the same. So when we pulled up to a Carl’s Jr. in the middle of our drive back home and I saw a group of soldiers enjoying breakfast, it was my norm and habit to do the same. With my daughter being older and understanding more, I took the opportunity to pull her aside to talk to her first. Asking her if she saw the soldiers, asking her if she knew what we were going to be doing, seeing her nod yes. Again sharing with her about her grandpa and his service. Asking her if she knew why we did it, and her answer made my heart swell with pride. “Because they are heroes, Mommy.”
Excusing our interruption of their breakfast, we both took the time to thank them for all they did. I beamed as my daughter said her own words. And in their responses, I knew they didn’t get thanked often. So later when one came behind me as I was ordering wanting a simple cup of water, but being asked to pay for a larger cup, it was a no-brainer for me to treat her. There was true appreciation in her words and body language for my simple act of respect and kindness for her service. I never expected anything in return but will be forever grateful for what happened next.
I sat with my daughter, again talking about the soldiers, her grandfather, what it meant to serve, hearing her thoughts, when the soldiers started to leave. They thanked us. But the one I had bought the drink for came back, knelt by my daughter and handed her the unit patch from her uniform. She said, “I want you to have this.” Thanked me and then left. My daughter beamed. She has not stopped talking about it and how very kind of her that was. She’s excited to share with her friends about the heroes she met and the badge. We talk about how special that is and how that doesn’t just happen. I feel confident this memory will live forever for myself and my daughter. But more importantly, I taught her the importance of the grace we give our men and women that serve and are willing to put the ultimate sacrifice on the table every day as they suit up for work. Does she fully understand, no. But will she continue to thank our service personnel, understanding more each time, giving space for us to talk, yes.
See what I learned watching my father and watching all those episodes of "Tour of Duty" is really quite simple. Army green is not Democratic blue or Republican red. It transcends divide simply because of what they do. They serve to protect our freedoms, our way of life - be it conservative or liberal values, to protect their brothers and sisters in arms, to defend our country. And they do so with little pay that amounts to minimum wage here in California and are expected, if called upon, to sacrifice their lives. That deserves our thanks. That deserves our respect. So I humbly ask, if you see a soldier, take the one minute or less it will take to genuinely say thank you to them.