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Remembering my brave role models this Veterans Day

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Every year on Veterans Day, I think of my parents, both young adults when World War II hit. They both signed up for military service to do their part in the war effort: my father in the U.S. Army and my mom in the U.S. Coast Guard.

They never boasted about their service. In fact, they didn’t say much about it until about 20 years ago when the Coast Guard started hosting events to honor the SPARS (Semper Paratus Always Ready), the name for the women who joined. My parents and I attended several conferences, luncheons and receptions that called attention to the pioneering spirit of those women and the sacrifices made by all the military during those tumultuous years.

I remember vividly my mom talking about the day that her parents bid her, just 21, farewell at Union Station in Washington, just four miles from her home in small- town Georgetown of the 1940s.

As a child, I remember my mom vividly talking about the day that her parents bid her, just 21, farewell at Union Station in Washington, four miles from her home in small-town Georgetown of the 1940s.

I loved hearing her childhood tales of hopping over the fence at the community pool before hours, or watching the lamplighter light the gas streetlights just before dark, or attending grade school at Holy Trinity, just steps from Georgetown University.

Her older brother, Raleigh, signed up for the military at the start of the war. That influenced her decision to do her part.

With tears in her eyes but with an adventurous spirit, my mom boarded the New York City-bound train. The first person she met was Marguerite Brackett (later Spear), a nearly 6-foot-tall Washington resident who towered over my mom, at just a half-inch over 5 feet. Most of the train was filled with WACs and WAVES, women heading for Army and Navy service. Three headed for the Coast Guard were put in the same compartment and became fast friends.

Marguerite, now 99, lives with her son and family in rural Virginia. My mom died at age 89 nine years ago. They were best friends throughout their lives and Marguerite is like an aunt to me.

Recently, I asked Marguerite what she was thinking that day — 78 years ago — at Union Station. “I was probably scared to death; right now, I don’t know. How did I ever have that nerve? I never had the nerve to do anything. Maybe sometimes you are just meant to do something.”

After a couple weeks in New York City, the SPARS boarded a train for basic training in Oklahoma. Marguerite recalls the food prepared by the locals was delicious, but the training was not easy. On the marches, she was in the front with her long legs. I recall my mom saying she’d asked Marguerite to not walk so fast because being in the back and shorter meant nearly running to keep up.

Back in New York, the SPARS lived in a hotel. Mom was secretary to the captain of the port at Battery Park. She could look out her window and see the Statue of Liberty. One of the first women there, she said she felt blessed to be treated with respect by the gentlemen in the office. She sat near the man who discovered a German spy on the beach and was assigned to the office for his protection. Marguerite was a secretary in the Coast Guard intelligence office.

Life in New York, despite the wartime restrictions, afforded a couple of small-town girls some great experiences: my mom’s passion for baseball was rewarded with outings to major league baseball games. Marguerite recalls the tickets to plays, huge restaurants and Radio City Music Hall. “We had a lot of adventures together.”

There were sacrifices, but no one seemed to mind or complain. “We had to keep our hair short, and I had to gain weight to meet the requirements, but the uniform was nice-looking.”

Having lived through the Depression and World War II, Marguerite has a unique perspective on a lot of things. I asked about the coronavirus pandemic.

“If you have been through hardships, it makes you take the hardships better than others. All these things change you or make you who you are. I do think almost everything we do does influence us and what we do.

“The pandemic is terrible. I think you worry more about other people than yourself,” she said.

“We have a lot of things to be thankful for, but we are not always thankful.”

I reminded her that Veterans Day is coming up. She demurred and said, “Sure, you should have a Veterans Day for people like me, but those men who went over and took their lives in their hands and lost them,” they should be honored.

I told Marguerite that I thought she, and my mom, were brave to join the Coast Guard at that time. “You think that was brave. Do you really?” she paused. “We did some good, I’m sure we did.

“I was glad I did it. I never thought it was a mistake.”

What a gift to be able to look to my mom and her best friend as amazing role models in my life. Thank you both for your service.

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Another brave role model this Veterans Day: My mother’s other longtime Coast Guard friend, Harriet Wood Rogers, age 98, emailed after seeing this op-ed.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020