My Day on a Military Base

Many Americans, at least a lot of folks in my social circle, don’t have much contact with our military service personnel. Because we have a professional, volunteer military (and no draft) it’s sometimes easy for the rest of us to go about our daily lives as if we weren’t embroiled in two wars. We slap magnetic yellow ribbons on our SUVs and say we “support the troops.” Yet, few of us have much first hand contact with military families. I sent my second cousin, Alan, cookies when he was deployed to  Kosovo as part of the NATO presence there. That was easy. The fact that he had to spend months away from his wife and young daughter is something I can’t imagine. Furthermore, I’ve never really asked Alan about his experiences with the National Guard. Our military does so much more in the world than just “blow stuff up,” but I know so little about what they really do.

Crowe Family

I was recently invited to attend the promotion ceremony of Army Major Matthew Crowe at the Presidio of Monterrey. At first I felt a little uncomfortable because I didn’t want to be an interloper at what was important day for his family, but his mom invited me so who was I to turn down the opportunity to catch a glimpse of life on a military base? Plus, Major Crowe’s mother, Valerie, is a friend from my recent year in Scotland and I really wanted to see her again. Valerie is awesome.   She’s a spunky,   US Army widow who will proudly tell you about her Cockney heritage, her career with Scotland Yard, and raising her British-American kids in Germany.   She’s also the grandmother of two-year-old “Wee Victoria” and you gotta love it when a grandmother shows up at the church choir retreat in a Hooters t-shirt and unpacks a couple bottles of gin (for sharing, of course).

So, there I was on the base feeling like I didn’t deserve to be there. It was an honor to be invited and I was excited to see Matthew’s promotion ceremony because I didn’t know what to expect. I grew up in a family where my grandfathers, uncles, and father all served during times of war. My maternal great-grandfather reportedly saved a neighbor’s life in the trenches of WW I and my Grandpa Charley has a Purple Heart earned during the liberation of Guam. Not to mention a few cousins who are veterans of our current conflicts. I grew up thinking that I would serve as well. At least my dad harbored that hope when he took me to airshows and talked about ROTC being a great way to pay for college. He nearly succeeded in guiding me down that path, but I went to New York to study artsy-fartsy things instead.

As a result of my upbringing I tend to look upon our men and women in uniform with a little bit of awe and probably some guilt that I didn’t make the sacrifices that they have.   Matthew went to Afghanistan three times -- four times if you count the time he was home for a few weeks, had one of his deployments extended, and had to turn around and go right back. He and wife Isabel had to cancel their church wedding and opt for a civil one before he went back.   A few months after Victoria was born Matthew deployed again for Afghanistan and did not return until she was a year old. On one of those deployments he lost four of his men. Meanwhile, Isabel spent most of her first year as a mom without her husband. I can only imagine the kind of anxiety she must have felt waiting for him to come home.

The day I showed up at the Crowe’s house I was greeted by Isabel’s mom -- who was visiting from Germany -- and rambunctious, two-year-old Victoria who was chatting to me in a combination of English and German. Valerie and Matt were out getting Indian food for the party following Matthew’s “pinning.” He’s studying Hindi at the military foreign language school and so he felt it was important to track down the most authentic Indian fare in the Monterrey Bay area (his instructors would know the difference). Once they returned with the food everybody changed clothes, loaded into the cars, and headed for the base.

The Presidio of Monterrey overlooks beautiful Monterrey Bay and is dotted with buildings where every imaginable language is being taught to our service people. It was explained to me that the Presidio is fairly unique because members of all four branches of the military are stationed there. My mom’s first cousin and a dear friend studied languages at the Presidio so I knew about the school, but never imagined that I’d visit. At Matthew’s promotion ceremony I spotted the combat uniforms of soldiers, airmen, and marines (no sailors that I noticed). There were enlisted personnel, officers, and their families in attendance. Matthew’s colonel from Afghanistan traveled from another base to present him with the gold oak leaf insignia of the  US Army Major.   It was a simple ceremony. The Colonel spoke and then presented him with the symbols of his new rank as his fellow servicemen drew to attention. Matthew spoke, his mom teared up a little, Victoria ran up to her dad and hugged his legs. Pictures were taken and the food was served. “Cake?!” exclaimed Victoria when she discovered the desert menu.

Being at the Presidio of Monterrey and hanging out with the Crowes gave me a small glimpse into military life that I wish all Americans could experience. We are embroiled in two wars and have thousands of military personnel deployed to hot spots around the world. They work on our behalf, but unless you live in a town with a base or have a close friend or relative serving, the military community isn’t a factor in our daily lives. I would encourage anyone who has an opportunity to visit a base or develop an acquaintance with an active service person to do so.

Also, If you want to do more than just display a yellow ribbon on your car, here are some possible volunteer and donation opportunities:

The USO:  http://www.uso.org/

US Dept. of Veterans Affairs:  http://tinyurl.com/yjhhzgs

Military.Com:  http://tinyurl.com/yf3zmjk

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