Tuesday, May 30, 2006

They Also Served

The military family serves too, and often pays a higher price than the soldier, sailor, or airman. I know that many times in my Air Force career, when my responsibilities were the most demanding – long hours, challenging work, extended family separations – I honestly was having the time of my life. It didn’t take long for my late first wife, Marilynn, to catch on. When I would try to get out of a doing a house project for her by pleading how tired I was, how hard I was working, she would look me in the eye: “You love it, don’t you?” The way she said it, it wasn’t a question. She knew. She knew me. She knew that I loved my job, enjoyed the company of fellow students at first, and later in my career, fellow workers, and that I would rather be working long hours on the job than at home. Since Marilynn was able to see through me, I ended up doing both.

For her part, she was both a hard worker and very adaptable. During our early married years my Air Force pay didn’t always stretch enough to fit each month's needs. Without some help every now and then from Pop and Mom, we would have come up short a few times. While I was going to Indiana University for Russian training, I walked past the Bloomington high school on West 2nd Street every day on my way home to pick up the empty soda bottles that the students tossed behind the fence and redeem them for the deposit. During one tight period, when we had just arrived in Maryland for my classes at the National Security Agency, we had spaghetti for every meal for two weeks.

Marilynn had Bruce, our oldest son in California while I was attending a radio intercept school in Texas. Later, I was stationed in Turkey for six months before we saved up enough from her job and my Air Force pay to pay for Marilynn and Bruce to join me in Turkey.

When Marilynn was pregnant with our third son, Jeffrey, she spent three months in California taking care of Bruce and Scott while I was in Officer Training School in Texas. Just before my commissioning date, she drove with the two boys all the way out from California to Texas, then we all drove in a rush to Michigan where I enrolled in the Michigan State University MBA program. There Marilynn set up her ninth household in six years, and soon Jeffrey arrived.

A year later, we were off for what turned out to be five years in England, our first real settled assignment in over seven years of married life. We came back from England to Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, not far from St. Louis, Missouri. We had a good almost four-year assignment there, although Marilynn spent many anxious hours with Jeffrey in the Air Base Hospital because of his asthma attacks.

Marilynn was very active in the Officers’ Wives Club, and one of her good friends, Janey, was also the wife of my ultimate boss, Colonel Leuthold. When Janey heard of Jeffrey’s asthma problem, she and Marilynn worked together to get us our next assignment, Hawaii. Janey was confident that Hawaii would be wonderful for Jeffrey’s health, and bless her heart, she was right.

We began preparations for our move to Hawaii. I did a for-sale-by-owner on our house, we arranged that half our household goods would be shipped to Hawaii, and the other half we would take to California in a rental truck for storage in one of my father-in-law’s garages. As we packed and got everything ready for the big move, Marilynn noticed some swelling and prominent blood vessels on the side of her right breast. Since she was only 33 years old, we weren’t very concerned, but she made an appointment for an examination. I was in my office at Base Accounting & Finance when she walked in looking distraught, then began sobbing uncontrollably. A large tumor had been found, and a needle biopsy indicated it was malignant.

We consulted two surgeons, and agreed on a modified radical mastectomy to remove the breast tissue but not the underlying muscles so that Marilynn would retain the full range of motion and strength in her right arm. Within days following the operation, with an open sixteen inch incision on her chest, Marilynn and our youngest sons, Scott and Jeffrey, flew to California. Then her mother Priscilla, with our oldest son Bruce in one car, and Dilly dog and I in the truck towing the other car, set off for California. We made a detour to Offut Air Force Base, Nebraska, on the way. One of Marilynn’s younger sisters had divorced her husband, also an Air Force officer, and we had agreed to pack up some of her things on the way and bring them along to California.

After a couple of weeks in California, we flew on to Hawaii. We lived the first seven weeks in the Reef Hotel on Waikiki while we waited for our house on base. During this period, Marilynn went to Queens Hospital in Honolulu almost on a daily basis for radiation therapy. After we moved into our house on Hickam Air Force Base, Marilynn started six months of chemotherapy at Tripler Army Hospital, the large pink building on the hillside across from Honolulu International Airport. At Tripler, Marilynn also had a second mastectomy, this time as a precautionary measure.

After four years in Hawaii, the Air Force arranged a compassionate reassignment for me to Travis Air Force Base in northern California, and we were able to live just a couple of blocks away from her parents’ home in Vallejo, California.

I soon retired from the Air Force, with over 21 years of service, rather than take another assignment and move Marilynn away from her family. After another six months of chemotherapy, and then a three-year period of slowly declining health, the cancer began aggressive spreading and growth, and just two months after our 25th anniversary, Marilynn died in January 1988 at age 43, almost ten years after her initial treatment.

Through it all, in sickness and in health, from being poor to living comfortably, watching our sons grow, sometimes joyously sometimes struggling as we moved them away from old friends and into the unknown, Marilynn’s strength and support enabled me to do my duty to my country. There are a lot of people who are not in the military, but who struggle every day to make it possible for our guys and gals in the armed services to get their jobs done.

On Memorial Day, and on a lot of other days too, I think of them. They get no medals. No band plays. We’ll never have a day to honor them.

They also served.

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