I never served in the military — I was in one of the last draft lotteries for the Vietnam War, but my number never came up. But my life has been blessed with the wisdom of many veterans — people I appreciate on every square on the calendar, not just on Veterans Day.
Their sacrifices, bravery, loyalty, and service are not things they ever mention, but I see those same qualities in the way they have lived their lives, cared for others, and honored their country. It is humbling to think of where they have been, what they have experienced, and how they answered the most extreme challenges life placed in their paths.
There is no such thing as a “former” Marine and my friend John is walking, talking, story-telling proof. Although he’s peeking around the corner at his ninth decade on the planet, he’s still a Marine to the core, and this vet was in a hunting blind on Kelleys Island recently, wielding a crossbow and looking for deer. He’s full of energy, upbeat, and never does anything without a twinkle in his eye.
My Findlay friends Bob Maas and Cal Rettig possess more of that “right stuff” we find in so many veterans. Cal was inducted into the Army at age 19 in 1944 and served some harrowing duty throughout the Pacific Theater in World War II. “Buckeye Bob” served in the Army Airborne. Although Cal is pushing hard toward 95 and Bob is in his 80s, the duo makes several trips south each year to fish for monster stripers in Kentucky’s Lake Cumberland. They seek adventure without so much as flinching, and I admire their gusto for life.
Then there’s my friend Ralph, a Vietnam-era Army vet who put down the compound bow and set aside the fishing rods to spend several years of his retirement caring for his wife as she sparred with a relentless bone cancer. His patience, commitment, and compassion taught a lot of us what those words really mean.
There are many, many more vets I count as blessings, including my father-in-law who served in the Korean War era, and six uncles who all served in World War II. Only five of them really came home, as the horrors of war haunted my uncle Stan for a couple of decades until he took his own life. At one point, both of my grandmothers had all seven of their sons serving in the war, and they proudly displayed those service photos.
But the veteran who taught me the most was, without a doubt, my mother. My father served at a supply base in Greenland and his smarts and people skills got him to the rank of Second Lieutenant pretty quickly, but his service stories primarily involved dealing with the solitude and boredom in such a remote location.
My mother, on the other hand, was right in the heart of the conflict as an Army nurse barely beyond 20 years old. Her ship’s passage to England was plagued by the constant threat of German U-boats, and once there she spent many nights wondering if the air raid sirens would sound. She never mentioned being afraid, just that she was fulfilling her duty to her country.
When mom talked about taking care of the wounded during the D-Day invasion, she meant American soldiers, British, French, and Australians, and even Nazi prisoners of war. When we asked why they treated the enemy’s wounded, Mom said as a nurse, she provided the same care for everyone, regardless of their rank, nationality, or country of origin. If they needed some kind words or a blanket, they got both without regard for whose side the wounded soldier was on. There was a major life lesson in that account.
That quiet, bright, young nurse from the panhandle of West Virginia rose to the rank of First Lieutenant during her service in World War II, and soon lost track of how many soldiers she had treated, always delivering the care and compassion in large doses. That never changed after she took off the uniform for the final time.
Mom tended to the sick, the infirmed, the injured, and scores of frightened, young, first-time mothers during her hospital work stateside. Every baby in the nursery got that soft voice, sweet smile, and tender touch as it was welcomed into the world by this veteran.
When caring for her own growing family ended her work in the hospital, mom’s children got daily lessons in the gifts of humility, helping others, and practicing true Christian charity. Mom and Dad, two veterans who came from simple means, would write plenty of checks to support a wide range of causes, but person-to-person kindness was Mom’s strong suit.
She would prepare meals for families that were struggling, then have her children deliver them without mentioning where the food came from. She would buy winter coats, hats, and scarves on clearance or at rummage sales, then wash and repair them as needed, and send big boxes of these warm clothes to a Native American school in Montana operated by an order of nuns from Toledo.
Mom collected excess surgical equipment, medicines, maternity wear, and infant formula, and sent it to clinics in Mississippi, New Guinea, Philippines, and Africa. People she never met and never knew were all on the receiving end of her hill-folk generosity.
Anonymity was comfortable for this veteran — she never took a bow or accepted an award, always shunning the spotlight. Her children — eight daughters and six sons — learned the value of modesty and humility, all while seeing how she made giving to others and caring for those in need her life’s most rewarding work.
With her 14 children at home, this veteran took in an infant whose parents were incarcerated, this after the police just figured Mrs. Markey would know what to do. That baby lived with us for a good portion of a year, until the mother got out of jail. At other times, mom took in her son’s friend who no longer could get along with his father, and this friend lived with us for months. Years later, she took in another young teen with the same problems at home.
That steely resolve, forged in Appalachia and honed in service to her country overseas, was omnipresent. At times of crisis, injuries, accidents, and high emotion, she never wavered. She fed the hungry, clothed the poor, and gave shelter to those in need. Mom was a living advertisement for the Corporal Works of Mercy.
She taught us to care for all God’s creatures, big and small. I believe birds came from miles around, just to dine at Mrs. Markey’s backyard feeders. Nothing went to waste. Our family dog was the happiest canine on the block, dieting on rich table scraps long before that practice became frowned upon. When there were puppies, Mom made sure there was a nice, warm bed for the mother and her brood.
Mom was into her 70s when I asked her how she got through all of that turmoil, death, and destruction in World War II. Her immediate one-word answer was “prayer.” Her faith and her strength were a lesson for all.
There was that emotional confluence of tears and smiles when we put Mom to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, there among some of the same brave soldiers she had cared for many years before. It was the proper resting place for a humble veteran, First Lieutenant Helen Matthews Markey, U.S. Army. Her country got her best, and so did we.
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