Military Values Shape Life’s Legacy

Lucy eating the author’s homework Photo from Susan Page

Our 12-year-old yellow Lab, Lucy, has been eating paper lately, but I never thought she would eat my “homework.”

A few weeks ago I spoke to the Hawaii chapter of the Military Officer’s Association of America (MOAA). My topic: A Military Family Legacy: One woman’s lessons of duty, loyalty, faith and community. In preparing, I had to go back through my life to try to uncover those lessons and write them all out.

A legacy is something “handed down or remains from a previous generation or time.”

I’m someone who’s spent a lifetime in a military culture: the daughter of a World War II Marine, niece of many uncles who served in that war, a Marine aviator’s widow, Marine artillery officer’s ex, current wife of a Naval aviator, and now the mother of a Marine aviator. (I’m sure there’s a clinical diagnosis for someone like me. Something to do with uniforms?)

Seriously, though, what was handed down to me from previous generations and, in turn, to my children? What are values inherent in military service? What values were inculcated in me as a daughter, spouse, mother?

My experience confirms that the military is a unique culture, albeit a small and ever-shrinking one compared to the broader population. A November 2011 Pew Research Center survey concluded that a “smaller share of Americans currently serve in the U.S. Armed Forces than at any time since the peacetime between World Wars I and II. During the past decade, as the military has been engaged in the longest period of sustained conflict in the nation’s history, just one-half of 1 percent of American adults has served on active duty at any given time. As the size of the military shrinks, the connections between military personnel and the broader civilian population appear to be growing more distant.”

Retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen described it as a “worrying disconnect” between civilians and the military. “I fear (civilians) do not know us … do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle.”

To the contrary, most baby boomers like me were connected to the military. Because of the draft, a majority of eligible men served during World War II as “citizen soldiers.” As a child, I remember the uniformed relatives in framed photos: one a POW in Germany, another a Naval officer, and Army Lt. Nelson “Button” Roberts, killed in action and buried in Germany.

While my mother talked often about her brothers, the war and their sacrifice, insistent that I understood the intrinsic evil in regimes like those of Hitler, Mussolini and Imperial Japan, and the Communist Soviet Union, my dad, a civilian after the war, wore the mantle of Marine by being a decent, hard-working, patriotic citizen who volunteered for many civic posts to improve our town. He shed tears at veteran’s parades and flew the flag. His lessons to me: service and patriotism.

After my husband’s tragic death in an airplane crash, our friend, journalist Rena Pederson, wrote a Dallas Morning News article, “Looking for Real Heroes,” about my late husband and Marine. “He oozed confidence. Even out of uniform he was unmistakably a leader. You had to stand up a little straighter around John Ditto.” From him, I learned discipline and passion for excellence.

My husband, retired Navy pilot Jerry Coffee, was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for seven years. His time in prison, enduring torture, isolation and deprivation, might have caused lasting bitterness and hatred. Far from it; his unflagging optimism, forgiveness and humility defy logic. His lesson for me: simply faith.

And son Kyle, a Marine, called me while in college in California, and out of the blue said, “I’ve decided to be a Marine aviator.” Stifling a gasp, I asked why, after years of denying any such desire. “I want to serve my country, Mom.” My lessons from him: duty and honor.

In a rush, I reached for my speech that was sitting on my desk. Shockingly, Lucy had eaten most of the first two pages. Fortunately, these lessons were so near to my heart, I didn’t need what was written on those pages.