Like so many of you, I spent this past weekend celebrating Memorial Day in a very different manner from years past. Picnics, family gatherings, and visits to the monuments in Washington, DC were replaced with walks through the woods and by the river.* On one of my walks, a wonderful memory of conversations from so long ago floated to the surface. I hope you’ll indulge me with a story about my Uncle George. When World War II broke out, Uncle George, who wasn’t actually old enough to enlist in the service, decided he had to find a way to serve his country. He walked, hitchhiked, and stole his way onto railroad cars from a small village in Pennsylvania all the way to California, where he lied about his age and joined the US Navy in 1940. His brother Carl was already in the Navy aboard the battleship USS West Virginia. The Navy assigned Uncle George to the USS West Virginia as well, and within days he found himself headed to Pearl Harbor, Hawai’i. They spent the better part of 1941 conducting extensive training in the event the war with Japan escalated. And, on the morning of December 7, 1941, as the USS West Virginia was moored alongside the USS Tennessee and USS Arizona in Battleship Row, it was struck by seven Japanese torpedoes on her port side, and armor-piercing shells hit ammunition storage casements, causing explosions and fire to rain down when several of the planes were hit causing fuel to spill across the deck. Bomb fragments from the destroyed USS Tennessee caused additional damage, including mortally wounding Captain Mervyn S. Bennion, who would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for defending the USS West Virginia until he died. While the USS West Virginia filled with water, it avoided capsizing in large part due to the heroic efforts of Lieutenant Claude V. Ricketts, the ship's assistant fire control officer. Brave men volunteered to stay behind to fight the fires as it slowly sank, only to be engulfed in the fires that spread from the nearby USS Arizona, which was spilling fuel oil. One hundred sixty men of the USS West Virginia lost their lives that day, and on December 6, 2019, another eight of the 35 unknown remains from USS West Virginia were identified. My Uncle George and his brother Carl survived. They were pulled from the fire and oil-laden water by a rescue motor launch, and after recovering, were honorably discharged from the US Navy.
Uncle George went on to live a wonderfully simple life. He worked at Fort Ritchie as an electrician, played the mandolin and banjo, and sang on the weekends and holidays. He married my Aunt Carrie (my Dad’s sister), and had a daughter, two grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren. He always had a smile on his face, and his eyes twinkled when he recounted how he got into the US Navy. In later years, he had several strokes. The one and only thing he asked me to do for him before he died was to take him to Washington, DC to see the World War II Memorial, since he knew he would never make it back to Pearl Harbor. In the fall of 2005, I packed him up with his wheelchair and headed for DC. It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky and even though there were a lot of tourists, Uncle George didn’t really notice them at all. He took in everything at the Monument and smiled, with a silent tear running down his cheek. He died November 8, 2005.
When I think about all of the heroic things you do on a daily basis in service to our country, I am as humbled by you as I am my Uncle George. I have witnessed and read and listened to your stories with pride, knowing that you mirror my Uncle George in determination, courage, and bravery. And I am forever grateful for the hundreds of brave men and women within our DHS family who have given their lives in defending and serving our great Nation. Like Captain Bennion and the other 160 men aboard the USS West Virginia, our DHS men and women proudly, bravely, and honorably stood their posts and carried out their duties knowing that someday they may pay the ultimate price with their lives. I read one time that our lives are not about when we are born or when we die, but rather what we choose to do with the dash (–) that is in between those two dates. Every day I am honored to cross paths with so many of you as we embark on making a difference in the lives of those we touch through our collective “dash.”
Always remember, no matter what you are facing, you are not alone. There is always someone to help you through the long days and nights. You can reach out to colleagues, your supervisor, the Employee Assistance Program, or peer support program if your component has one, without hesitation. If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call 800-799-7233. If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact 800-273-8255 right away. And please feel free to continue to connect with me. Going forward, I will continue to connect with you via the Employee Resources blog—though I am planning more than just written messages.
As you head to work or back home today, hold your head high…you are one of the heroes among us.
*Originally posted on May 27, 2020.