Last week, some of my students I coach for the high school speech team approached me about speaking at our school’s annual Veterans’ Day assembly. A younger me (sixteen, perhaps, the age of the girl who made the request) would have sneered at anything patriotic. Adolescent Amelia, in all her gothy glory, crossed her fingers while saying the Pledge of Allegiance, because she hated rah-rah sheep-conformity, and didn’t believe in this God person our nation was supposedly under.
A lot has changed since then. Things come in gradients. Everything is so black and white when you’re a kid. Or, I guess, red white and blue or not, as the case may be. Patriotism is something I have struggled with, because it has grown on me over time, and I’m not sure it should. Yet I can’t forget my family’s roots, my relatives’ proud military service, or how I’ve seen the army transform two of my childhood friends from hot messes into functional, wildly successful adults. Yet, I’m also the child of a pair of formerly long-haired hippies. My aunt, whom I greatly admire, often clashed with my grandfather (who retired a Brigadier General) about matters of national pride. Again, black and white – rock and roll or the way of the hawk.
What I do know is that I can’t make it through a Veteran’s Day assembly without tearing up. Every year as I march my kids down to the gym to listen to the band and salute our colors, I stuff a wad of tissues into my pocket for when the inevitable glisten comes to my eyes. I don’t want to be a blind follower of our government, to proclaim that ‘Murica is number one no matter what, and I acknowledge we’ve made some terrible mistakes in the past. But the older I get, the more I have to protect. I have a little girl now, and I like our way of life as Americans. I love our prosperity and our freedom, and I think the military plays a hand in preserving these ideals. I’m probably way off base, but I think there are some places in the world that would really benefit from a chance to become more like America. And let’s face it, there’s a lot of evil out there that I think needs to be battled against. Sometimes that requires a military response.
I can’t help but be proud of my military family, because the armed forces are such an integral part of it. Two grandfathers in World War II, one in the European Theater, one in the Pacific. My maternal grandfather, Bob Scharnberg, was a Seabee engineer. Yes, he went to war, but his family also served. My grandmother traveled all around the country with him. It floors me to think of this little farm girl from small town Iowa going to California and New York. My daughter is four months old – I can’t imagine what it would have been like giving birth to her without my husband Lee there. But that’s what my grandma did, and my grandpa didn’t meet his son Gary until the kid was three or four years old. Can you imagine missing all of your baby’s childhood? When a family member is in the military, all those connected with him or her are also serving alongside in one way or another. That German Lutheran Midwest perseverance is what I’m proud of.
Family members pay a price. My grandfather’s brother, Russell, was shot down in his fighter plane over Germany escorting a B-17 on a bombing run. His young wife gave birth to their son a few days after he was declared MIA. My grandfather shouldered the responsibility of sole heir to the family farm and helping support everyone. I know all of this happened after I was born, but now as a mother I’m able to fully appreciate the sacrifices that were made by the Scharnberg clan to rid the world of the Axis. This is why it matters to me that Uncle Russ’s grave sits empty in our family cemetery. This is why it matters to me that parts from his plane were found in East Germany in the 70s, but we were just contacted about the discovery because the information had been buried by the Communist government. This is why it matters to me that someday his remains are returned.
And this is why I cry at the Veteran’s Day assembly every year. Wish me luck in making it through my speech without breaking down in front of the entire town of Alburnett.