The Last Word by Marcus Fisk

The Last Word – Homecoming

Every May brings us Memorial Day but for veterans, their families, and families of the fallen, the day and weekend carry a deeper meaning.

Four of the famous Pacific Five – P.S. Admiral Nimitz was busy and couldn’t get here. (L to R – Stan Fisk, Reid Rentz, Swede Wells, and Red Weaver – Pearl Harbor November 1945).

Alexandria, VA – I don’t know what you do in the Navy, but your role in my life is crystal clear – you’re the anchor that holds everything in place. Welcome home, sailor. – Navy Wife

Every May brings us Memorial Day. For many Americans it marks the beginning of summer, and it has become a long weekend to shop, barbecue chicken, burgers, and steaks, and hang out with family. Many car dealerships, discount furniture stores, and big box stores will dominate advertising in anticipation of the long weekend offering deals on whatever inventory they are trying to move.

But for veterans, their families, and families of the fallen, the day and weekend carry a deeper meaning. It is an opportunity to reflect on the shipmates and comrades we have lost.

We will see the vast fields of flags that have become a tradition at Arlington and all our 155 national cemeteries in 42 states and Puerto Rico, and 34 soldier’s lots and monument sites operated by the government. Additionally, the American Battle Monuments Commission manages and maintains 26 permanent American military cemeteries and 31 federal memorials, monuments, and markers located in 17 foreign countries, the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the British Dependency of Gibraltar. Three of the memorials are in the United States.

I come from an average American family. Unlike the national statistic that only seven percent of Americans are veterans (2019), we have our fair share of veterans, including one family member who never came home.

As best as I can determine from my digging into our family history, (1) we have eight Army and National Guard, three Air Force, seven Navy, and one Marine veteran since the Civil War. (2)(3) Our service covers the Civil War, WW II, Korea, Laos, the Berlin Crisis, The Cuban Missile Crisis, the “Cold War,” Vietnam, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Clearly, our genes must have lacked a healthy dose of intelligence since, except for two family members, we all volunteered. Either we simply didn’t understand the inherent threat or we all thought that we’d just head off on some great adventure that we needed to get completed before settling down in the plumbing business, sold whole life insurance policies, or became a Journeyman printer or master electrician.

My great Uncle Milan “Ace” Dancul (Bottom row 4th from L) served in the Air Force in the Pacific in WW II.

Our first veteran was my great-great-grandfather, John Purvis Moffatt. He served with Company B of the 51st Ohio Infantry Regiment. Enthusiastically enlisting on 9 September 1861, he went on to an Army career of complete obscurity. After all his training and preparation for the 51st Ohio’s march to Kentucky and Tennessee, he was medically discharged. His diagnosis by the Regimental Physician indicates he was released in May 1862 for a “rupture,” thereby missing the battles of Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and Stone Mountain.

Dad at about the time he went to Vietnam.

My father, Stan, joined the Navy during WW II because he had quit high school and, in his words, “…wasn’t doing anything except working at a laundry and smoking cigarettes.” He tried the Army Air Corps, but he was color blind, so he walked into a Navy Recruiting Station in Cleveland. A day later, he was on his way to Boot Camp. After training, he found himself attached to the Seabees on the island of Banika in the Solomon Islands.

Dad and his two cousins were very close growing up during the depression. His mischievous cousin, Kenneth, enlisted in the Navy, also as a Seabee, and found himself stationed at New Caledonia. The “smart, studious, and quiet” cousin Donald enlisted in the Army and served with the 5th Infantry Division in France.

Of the three cousins, Donald was our family’s only combat casualty over all the generations. Private Donald Wideman, after all his NCOs were killed, single-handedly engaged and silenced three German machine-gun nests that were subjecting his platoon to ruthless and withering fire.

Donald was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s 2nd highest award for bravery, second only to the Medal of Honor.(4)

After WW II, Stan Fisk went on to Bowling Green State University (Ohio), majored in education and drama, and received his B.A. on the G.I. Bill. When teaching didn’t turn out to be his long suit, he went into the Army, received an officer’s commission, and served a total of 26 years, encompassing Korea, Laos, and Vietnam.

Seeing Memorial Day on the horizon, I took time to go through some family photos. I came across several events which the military refers to as “Homecomings.” My nephew Rawley served in the Navy as a Corpsman with the Marines and did two “pumps” to Afghanistan. My brother Nelson is also a combat veteran of the Marines from his service with the 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in Iraq.

My nephew – Rawley Kornman – USN

Just looking at pictures of their homecomings brought a flash of emotion. Surrounded by family, smiles, hugs, and “moochies” (short for “smoochies”) as we call them in our family, I could feel the moment they shared, having been there myself through my Navy service and from Dad’s homecomings.

That feeling took me back to a hot July day in 1962 at Fort Bragg, NC. Dad was Commander of an A-team with the 7th Special Forces Group. He was returning from deployment in Laos with Operation White Star, training the Laotian Army. The night our soldiers returned from Laos, all the families were herded into a gym on post while they were “debriefed.” I remember my mother was particularly perturbed after some four hours with hundreds of kids running around at 2:00 am, waiting for the “debriefing” to end so we could get on with our lives as families.

But, hey – it’s the Army. Finally, the doors opened and out strolled hundreds of Green Berets. Out of the mass I only saw one soldier, my Dad. It was a great reunion.

The most memorable reunion was July 1971. My Dad had spent a year in Vietnam and, instead of flying right home, my mother flew to San Francisco to spend a week with Dad before they flew home to the rest of us “kids.” After five days, they looked at each other and said, “Let’s get an earlier flight and see the kids.”

That was Dad’s last combat tour in the Army. We dressed up, and our Aunt Emily shuttled us out to Dulles to meet our folks. I was holding the camera to take some shots of the homecoming. I made sure the lighting was correct for the exposure setting and I was ready. Then, there was mom coming out of the mobile lounges that ran between the planes and the terminals. She was beaming. All the other kids hugged mom.

And after what seemed an eternity, out came Dad in his Greens, smile a mile wide. Nelson, Chris, and DeeDee all enveloped him as I snapped furiously, trying to catch the moment. Something was wrong, though. It looked like Dad was out of focus. I kept trying to adjust the lens. A few frustrating seconds later, I realized why I couldn’t focus—my eyes were filled with tears that were streaming down my cheeks. How embarrassing! A 17-year-old guy crying at the airport! What would Dad think?

Sometimes my “commute to the office” required special Uber Drivers. That’s me in the center with my guardian angels in Iraq 2006.

Aunt Emily took the camera from me and I just stood there looking at Stan the Man. Then I dove into his arms, face wet with joy, the warmth of his arms and the slight hint of Old Spice that I knew and missed for 13 months.

Dad was home for the last time. All was right with the world.

Always remember: You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think. -Winnie the Pooh

(1) Damn you Henry Louis Gates – it’s all your fault!

(2) And yes, that’s right, Virginia — the “Civil War.” None of this “War Between the States,” “War of Northern Aggression,” or “The Great Unpleasantness” flim-flam I was born in Ohio – you know – where General U.S. Grant was from — and I believe “we” won the war so we can call it whatever we want.

(3) Even my grandmother. Anna O’Donnell worked for the U.S. Army Ordnance Command during WW II.

(4) Donald C. Wideman is located at Plot B; Row 20 Grave 11, Lorraine American Cemetery, France.

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