One by one, 54 young people walked across the dais and were recognized for their decision to serve our country. Tall ones, short ones. All colors of Americans. Some trying to get away and some trying to find themselves.
The Army band played patriotic music, none more patriotic than the Armed Forces Medley. All branches of the service were represented by military officers on stage, the biggest collection of brass and ribbons I have ever seen. And as “Off We Go, Into the Wild Blue Yonder” was played, it brought back a lot of memories for me.
As the youth were honored during Salute to Service in the Waynesville High School gym May 10, I wondered to myself what it was like 77 years ago when my late father, James Dodd, lied about his age and joined the Army. He spent some time in the Army during the occupation of Germany after World War II, then switched to the Air Force. Then he married my mom, who also served for a time in the military. In fact, they met when she was in basic training in San Antonio, Texas.
Then they had me and my two younger sisters. We traveled the country. I was born at Scott Air Force base in Belleville, Illinois. My sister Denise, two years younger than me, was born there, too. Then we were stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska, and my sister Cathy was born a year and two months after it became a state. Then we all moved to Kincheloe Air Force Base in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, where I graduated kindergarten.
My dad spent a year in Korea while the rest of the family spent a year in Caruthersville in the Missouri Bootheel, his hometown. Then we headed back north, spending a couple years at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. Then we headed back south – thank God – and my dad retired from the service in Caruthersville. I was in the seventh grade and never wanted to live above the Mason-Dixon Line again.
We sort of got back to a normal life.
What do I remember about my 13 years as an Air Force brat? I remember my dad serving his country. He wasn’t in combat, and he didn’t earn a Medal of Honor. He didn’t fly a jet, and he wasn’t a general. But when you serve, you serve, and it doesn’t matter your role or rank. Every job is important. Every job vital.
My dad died in 1999. If he would have been in the Waynesville gym Wednesday night when all those wet-behind-the-ears kids with dreams of serving the country shook hands with generals, I think he would have told them all about sacrifice.
Not the kind of sacrifice that makes headlines or earns medals, but the kind of sacrifice that every person in every branch of service makes. He’d tell them about Christmases alone, with family half a world away. About raising your family in places where, in the winter, you can spit and it freezes before it hits the ground. About moving, yet again, and telling your kids they have to not only leave their friends behind, but they have one footlocker to get their toys in, and that’s it.
About what it’s like to not see his wife and kids for a year while he served in Korea. About coming back from Korea and surprising his 11-year-old son in the basement with hugs and tears, thanking him for mowing the yard and taking out the trash while he was gone.
Joining the service of our country is about all kinds of sacrifice, some you see on the TV news, some you don’t. Some sacrifices are made by military men and women, some by their families.
He could have told the 54 kids what to expect, and not in a negative way. I never heard my dad once say he regretted his service to our country. He retired after 21 years and spent another 20 in a second career. He retired with two retirement checks and the satisfaction that he sacrificed and served for our country.
My dad would have learned something Wednesday night, too. The armed services is a lot different these days. Number one, you can’t lie about your age to get in early. The benefits of joining are a lot better, too. You can get an enlistment bonus of up to $50,000. (In 1954, an E-4 with three years’ service earned $129.95 a month). You get free health care, housing benefits and a nice retirement plan. Those who join the service learn a skill and can get their education paid for.
My dad would be amazed at what the Air Force and other armed services are today. And he would have been amazed at the fanfare Wednesday night, as well as pleased, to see there are still a lot of people who appreciate and are willing to recognize those who sacrifice in ways small and big to serve our country.