While the courage and sacrifice of America’s veterans will be remembered and honored on Nov. 11, those have supported them every other day of the year should not be overlooked, according to organizations like the American Veterans Center.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama said that “when we talk about patriotism and courage and resilience, we’re not just talking about our troops and our veterans, we’re talking about our military families as well.”
November has been designated as Military Family Appreciation month, so the Reporter reached out to families on the Island with loved ones currently serving to get their stories.
Islander Tracy Conway, whose father served in the Navy, said she felt a mix of emotions — from pride to worry — when her son Devlin told her that he wanted to attend the Naval Academy in Annapolis. He will soon graduate and learn his assignment, and is hoping to enter a dangerous field: explosive ordinance demolition (EOD). That is also the specialty of Navy captain Daniel Malatesta, whose parents live on the Island.
“Like every parent, I worry most that he will be put in harm’s way and be hurt,” Conway said.
But she admires her son and his classmates, and their camaraderie and commitment to protecting freedoms. Respect for the military has been in the national spotlight lately, with the president suggesting that football players kneeling during the national anthem be fired. Conway said her son and his friends told her that one of the reasons they fight is to protect rights like free speech. Malatesta’s mom, Pat, said that those in the military “provide the U.S. freedoms that few around our world experience.”
The pride is usually colored with concerns for their loved one’s safety. Islander Hilary Benson’s younger brother Geoff Norman serves in the U.S. Army and has had multiple deployments to war zones including Iraq, Afghanistan and Camp Gary Owen near the DMZ in South Korea.
“For my parents, it’s an incredible worry having a son in a war zone,” Benson said. “It’s hard to understand the stress until you live it… little news mentions of a bombing or military action overseas that most people ignore are something where we’d hold our breaths, hope and pray that it doesn’t involve Geoff.”
Her son, Nathan, graduated from Mercer Island High School this year and is doing Army ROTC while he attends Emory University. Benson said her son sees his uncle as a role model. She said she wishes people knew how “incredibly much sacrifice military spouses and children make.”
“Geoff’s family has moved 16 times in the past 19 years. For their two sons, it means changing schools, making new friends. For Geoff’s wife Stephanie, a NICU nurse, it means getting a new job every time she moves, plus holding down all the logistics of the home front,” Benson said. “A lot of us civilians complain about work travel — we (or our spouses) rarely are in war zones, and our trips are not a year long. It’s hard to fathom really until you know someone living that life.”
Islander Bob Stoney said he “tries not to worry” about his son, who serves in the Navy. His grandfather was also in the Navy, and he himself served for 23 years.
“We know that our son is getting the best training available, was hand-picked for his job, and has the skills and equipment to perform his mission as safely as possible,” he said.
Stoney said the hardest thing, for both military members and their families, is the time spent apart. The pace of operations in the military right now is such that time away from home is often significant for military members, he said, and it’s “a team effort to keep things going” during those periods.
Malatesta said that she is proud of her son’s service — and has given him support at every turn “although we had many reservations about him attending a military academy and of course, choosing the dangerous job he has” — but knows said it would be “impossible” without the support of his wife and three boys.
“He has served over 22 years having four deployments into the war zones,” she said. “He and his family have moved 10 times, with three tours in Europe… His wife Heather is the heart of the family and manages the details of the home and moves as well as cares for their three sons, ages 8 to 14. She and the boys have made the sacrifices of having Dan in the war zones and have always thoroughly supported him as well as his unit.”
She said she was also impressed with the other men and women attending the U.S. Naval Academy and other academies, especially as military careers become more rare.
“We knew he was in the right place and have continued to respect and admire the men and women with whom he serves,” she said.
Islander Dana Fisk, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and Desert Storm vet, also said the greatest challenge is time away from her family. She has four kids, and her husband is a fire fighter and paramedic in Seattle.
“I wish people really understood how much military families have to sacrifice. They work so hard, long hours, leaving early for work and coming home late — frequently more hours and less money than the civilian counterpart,” Fisk said.
Service members are often unable to attend important events, such as childhood milestones, birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, Fisk said. Family roles can change as spouses have to hold down the fort while members deploy, fulfilling the role of both parents, and older children have to step up and take responsibilities not asked of other kids their ages, she added.
Fisk said she’s proud of the accomplishments she’s achieved in her career, including becoming a CCATT (Critical Care Air Transport Team) nurse.
Benson said she admires her brother’s choice to become a soldier when he “could have gone many directions with his life and career.”
“I’m proud of what Geoff has done and given for our whole country’s well-being and relative security when there are people and groups that are making their mission to harm Americans,” she said. “He feels strongly about defending the U.S. and has acted upon that.”
Though the number one concern when loved ones are deployed especially is their safety, Benson said, there are other worries, including “the long-term impact of losing friends and colleagues, seeing the horrific things that people in war zones do to each other, and also the impact of having been under attack.”
“Service families feel particularly connected to one another and actively work to support each other in a multitude of ways,” Conway said, noting that the families she’s met “represent a diverse cross section politically and socio-economically.”
There are ways that communities can support service members and their families, including supporting their local VFW, Fisk said, celebrating the holidays and building patriotic pride, Conway said, and donating money or sending USO care packages to show service members that they are being thought of, Benson said. Malatesta suggested hiring veterans, or visiting a military hospital, “to provide emotional as well as monetary support.”
Stoney said that he is thankful for those who support the military, both with their taxes and personally, who “enable them to have the training, facilities and equipment they need.”
“Never take for granted or denigrate the freedoms we all share in the most magnificent country on the planet, for committed young Americans put their lives at risk every single day to defend our liberty,” Conway said.