Grandpa C. -- You served in the army in Eastern Europe during World War II. You met my grandma on a train in her home country of Hungary. She was a nurse, you were a soldier, and you fell in love. I've always thought your love story is one of the most romantic I've ever heard. You died when I was pretty young, and I don't remember you talking a whole lot about your time in the service. Whenever you did, though, it always turned into a conversation about Grandma, how you met her, how you fell in love with the beautiful raven-haired nurse. I always loved that your memories of war were so tightly intermingled with memories of Grandma.
Grandpa P. -- Your love for your country was so strong that you lied about your age to join the Navy and serve in World War II. Then, when you'd served your country in that war, you re-enlisted and went to Korea a decade later. I have a letter you wrote to your parents during your service in WWII. We found it in a box of your things after you passed away. The writing is faded now, the paper is yellowed and so thin it's nearly transparent, but I can still make out most of the words you wrote to them. You told them not to worry about you, that you were doing just fine, that you were proud to be serving your country. You asked about home and your brothers and sisters; you told them how much you missed them and the rest of your family. Your letter is now nestled safely in the American flag we got when you died -- a flag I know my brother is so proud to display in his home.
Dad -- You weren't given a choice: You were drafted into war, but that didn't make you any less of a Marine. You fought in a war that most didn't agree with, so you weren't given the hero's welcome home that you deserved. You don't like to talk about that part of your life, but when I was little I used to look through the photo albums containing all the pictures you took during your time in Vietnam. There you are, hair brown instead of white but eyes just as blue, wearing camouflage and looking tough and fearless in the verdant jungle. I guess I'll never know how you really felt during that time, but it doesn't matter: I'm still so incredibly proud of you.
Derrick -- Your brother worried about you every single day while you were gone. He obsessively checked our mailbox for a letter from you; he sent you countless CDs to listen to, especially Black Sabbath ones because he knew Ozzy was your favorite. The night before he left to meet you when you returned home, he didn't sleep at all. When you came back, he told me how different you seemed to him. You were changed by your experiences, and even though I only knew you for a few months before you left, I could see that you were different too. Your eyes were haunted. You've always spoken very openly about your experiences in the Middle East. I think it's the only way you can cope with what you saw. You were -- you are -- so very brave.
Seth -- You're a textbook case, on paper: the kid who was headed down the wrong path, who couldn't get it together and decide what he wanted to do with his life, who enlisted in the Army because he thought he was out of options. But you're so much more than that to me. You're my oldest cousin, the one who defended me when I was the only girl in a family entirely of boys. You held me tight when we danced at my wedding and whispered in my ear how happy you were for me. It's been amazing to see the transformation that the Army has had in you. You're finally reaching your potential; you finally feel like you have a purpose. Although I worry about you every day being stationed so far away in so dangerous a place, I'm so happy for you now, and so very proud of you too.
Jeff -- You made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, and I'm still reeling a little bit over the fact that you're actually gone. You were taken from us all way too soon. You were aware of the risks, though, and you embraced them; that's just the kind of person you were. That's the way you lived your life -- as though every day was your last. You lived and died serving a country you truly loved, and for that -- and for a million other reasons -- you will never be forgotten.
Today I donated $11.00 to the Eleven-Eleven Campaign, in the names of my heroes and all of yours. To honor the veterans in your life, click here.