Why This Non-Veteran Gives a Considerable Damn About Veterans
I’ve been getting that a lot, since we started this project. We’re dedicating six months of our lives and substantial personal resources, after all, to a veteran-specific cause. Why do it if you’re not, y’know, a veteran?
“...I didn’t know you were in the military?”
I didn’t enlist in the military. You were right about that. I was, however, in the military. I’m in the military like a fish is in water. I have been all my life. My family tree is a collection of official photos in dress blues.
My dad, for instance.
My dad was born an Air Force brat, just like me. He made his debut in 1950, while his parents were in Wiesbaden, Germany, on active duty. The little family--he was an only child; highly portable--bounced around the U.S. from segregation-era Mississippi and Alabama to Oregon, back to Alabama, then to Washington DC; then, finally, to California’s coastal Vandenberg, where his dad retired after 27 years of service. He remembers playing in the shadow of a raised-and-ready missile silo during the Cuban Missile Crisis. My dad graduated high school in nearby Novato.
The first thing you need to know about my dad--and you’ll know it immediately upon meeting him, in the first sentence or two--is that he’s brilliant. He skipped out on the business end of the sixties (1967 to 1971) to complete a combined chemistry/biology degree at the legendary CalTech in Pasadena. He spent his free time helping out up the road at NASA. (He gave me actual photo prints taken by an actual camera orbiting the actual moon. They hang on my wall. They are beautiful.) He joined Air Force ROTC there.
He graduated with honors. He has told me that quantam physics defined the limit of his processing capability; I have to remind him that, back then, people had to do that shit by hand. He can be forgiven for this being difficult.
On graduation, my dad was assigned to Nellis AFB, just outside Las Vegas, as a Disaster Preparedness Officer. His job was to train personnel on the finer points of nuclear detection and decontamination on the National Test Range--and later, at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, in chemical warfare agent decontamination. He has told me what it was like to walk around in the powdered decimation of a city that was built solely to be blown up, in lead-lined boots and a lead-lined overcoat, under the Las Vegas sun. He has told me what it was like to drive his blue jeep to the front doors of rural residents and tell them, without explanation, that they needed to leave. Now. He has told me what it was like to have the back wheels of that jeep hanging in the air over a cliff.
One day, a fighter plane--an F-4 Phantom, to be specific--crashed on base. My dad’s interest in first aid caught the eye of his CO. He was selected for sponsored medical training at the University of California San Diego. He learned to scuba dive nearby, in La Jolla. He has always liked solitary pursuits best, just like me.
After graduation, the Air Force assigned him to a three-year Internal Medicine Residency at Wilford Hall USAF Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. (That hospital--at the time and for many years after, the flagship medical center of the US Air Force--closed its doors forever in 2017.) While there, he met my mother, a doll-faced Air Force Nurse from urban Boston. They married. My dad tutored my mom in Chemistry. In addition to those studies, she learned that a bulb of garlic and a clove of garlic are not the same thing, least of all in a culinary context. My dad let her figure that out for herself, though his coworkers and lab partners ardently requested that he break the news to her preemptively.
At some point after a two-year nephrology Fellowship at the University of Texas Medical Center, they had me, and promptly moved to the Philippines for the first family PCS. My dad became the only military Nephrologist west of Honolulu. My sister was born out there. The earliest pictures of us have tropical backdrops. We’re squinting, and sweating, and smiling. The base where we lived is now under several feet of volcanic ash.
After that, the family’s orbit spun wide, but it spun around Travis AFB in Northern California for about a dozen years. Dad’s rank advanced: Major to Lieutenant Colonel to Colonel. He became Chief of the Medical Staff, then Medicine Residency Program Director, then Commander of the 1,200-man 60th Medical Operations Squadron.
It was explained to my sister and I that families also serve. Mom was not just our mom; she was a veteran, and a commander’s wife. We were a commander’s daughters. We were expected to comport ourselves in this manner. We were seen at church every weekend until we moved from the house. We joined our parents at the Officers’ Club every Sunday morning for brunch. I never skipped a single class. I never snuck out of the house. I never smoked a single joint. I tended my GPA like someone else’s garden.
One night, my dad came home from work and, before his briefcase could even hit the floor, he announced that we were “going to the Caribbean.”
The Panama years--when my dad was the 24th Medical Group Hospital Commander at Howard Air Base--were the best childhood years I can remember. My dad’s command of the hospital took place during the closure and shut-down of US facilities under the Carter-Torrijos Treaty. I busied myself in high school as a television and radio personality on the Southern Command Network stations, the only English-language service in the country. I like to think he listened to me read the morning news as he drove to work.
He took pride in every damn day of that work; every connection he made between the various US military branches nipping at each others’ heels and the local population; every disaster averted; every soldier saved. “Our Job Is To Care,” his commander’s coin insisted. And he did. And so, led by this example, did his unit.
“Is your dad really as perfect as he seems?,” his colleagues would ask me, next to punch bowls and picnic tables and fourth-of-July lawn chairs.
“Yes,” I’d say. I know what they meant; I also knew that, in the sense that they were asking about it, yes, he was.
I moved away from home when he was still in charge of his white hospital on the hill. Not much later, Howard closed. He, my mother and my sister moved to Scott AFB in western Illinois, where dad took up the mantle of the Air Mobility Command Senior Physician. The AMC seemed a behemoth to me, flitting in and out most Christmases, my dad’s exuberant collection of overseas souvenirs fitting oddly within the straight lines of the commodiously corporate, midwestern office he now occupied. “A busy kidney is a happy kidney,” tooted a cheerfully carved hardwood sign he commissioned in the Philippines. “An idle bladder does the devil’s work.” Behind it, white walls and glass.
It was there that my dad finished his three-decade-long Air Force career. It wasn’t over, though. My dad is military by blood, by temperament and by choice. He stuck with the mission.
Following his first retirement, he joined the DOD-GS system as a civilian Chief of the Medical Staff at Scott AFB. He remained there until 2005. After that, he moved to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, taking over as the Associate Chief of Staff for Ambulatory Care Services at Quillen in far-eastern Tennessee. He took on projects to revitalize and update the Center’s systems, working 60-hour weeks well into his sixties. He remained there until his second retirement at the end of 2016.
I wasn’t there for dad’s second retirement. I recall that not many of the folks in his immediate orbit in the VA were veterans themselves. I wonder how many people in that room could even conceive of the career he had; could calculate their service to America in lives saved; in continents not just traveled-to but truly lived-within and shared; in bringing up not just children but ambassadors.
Indeed, it is only a veteran who can truly understand the experience of another veteran. And that’s why veterans need a context to get together and serve each other.
And that’s why I’m here. Not because I ever made rank. Because I care, too. It’s my job.