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Honoring the Veterans in Your Family

Ways to celebrate the contributions made by real heroes

Last week my family gathered at our farm in Ohio to celebrate my dad's 85th birthday. There were 20 of us altogether—a real tribute to Dad. We came from Indiana, Arizona, Maryland, and Virginia to celebrate his big milestone.

While we were together, I asked a few of the children in our family what they knew about their grandpa. "He's like a mentor to me," said my 13-year-old nephew, Dylan. They could tell me about him—who he is, how he interacts with them, and that sort of thing. But when I asked what they knew about his military service, they said they really didn't know much. "He's a World War II veteran, but he doesn't talk much about that," was their answer.

When I was growing up, Dad didn't talk much about his military service during World War II and the Korean Conflict. He wore his army jacket when he was outside working in the yard, and there were always some of those old scratchy green army blankets around the house. There was also a mysterious green footlocker in our garage, but it was locked and I wasn't sure what was in it. There were friends from the army days, families we would visit. And occasionally a funny story about the adventures he and his buddies had after the war was over and things were a bit more relaxed. But that was about all we knew. It wasn't until I got older and started asking questions that I began to learn more about Robert Goyer: war veteran, as opposed to Bob Goyer: Dad, Uncle, Grandpa.

Last summer, my sister, Susie, and our parents and I went to a reunion of Dad's Army Division, the 10th Mountain Division, in Denver. It was truly amazing to learn more about what that division accomplished toward the end of WW II and about Dad's role in it; I wish the children in our family had been there.

The 10th was a division of elite troops with specialized operational skills adapted to fighting in rugged mountain terrain. These guys scaled the mountains of the Italian Alps during the night and surprised the Germans at the mountaintops where they had been untouchable for many months. No one could dislodge them, until the 10th showed up. The troops of the 10th could fight while climbing and skiing with 90-pound rucksacks on their backs (I tried one on at the reunion and could barely walk!). They used donkeys to carry supplies. Things didn't always go as planned, and they ended up in Italy with quite a bit of their equipment back home in the states. But they kept going through the Po Valley and across Lake Garda. They pushed the Germans out, leading to the Nazi surrender in Italy, followed shortly by Victory in Europe day.

These guys, including Dad, are real heroes. They accomplished the impossible. And there at the reunion were these men in their 80s and 90s all lit up as they sang their old Army songs (maybe it was good the children weren't there to hear some of those!) and reminisced. They looked like a bunch of 20-year-olds getting together for beers. They held their old Carbine weapons and checked out the M29C troop carrier nicknamed a "Weasel"—one of the first snowmobiles.

We visited the monument at Tennessee Pass, Colo., which memorializes the 1,000 boys of the 10th Mountain Division who lost their lives in those mountains of Italy. The veterans caught up on families and health and happenings. Several of the veterans of the 10th had gone on to help build the ski industry in the United States after the war, a contribution that is honored with a statue of a 10th soldier in snow camouflage on skis, which we saw in Vail. All of these men seemed to have parlayed their service experiences into a love for the great outdoors, and their families have greatly benefited from that.

During the reunion, Dad told me about the day his Captain was killed. He related the time he just missed being killed by enemy fire when he jumped into a ditch and came face to face with a comrade—he never saw that guy again. He told me about what it was like to cross the river at night on a DUKW (pronounced "duck"; an amphibious landing vehicle) and feel, literally, like a sitting duck out there in the open. Dad is very humble and modest about his service in the war, as are the other guys he served with. Meeting them, hearing about their experiences, gave me a completely different view of my father and of what our veterans have given and sacrificed for our country. It was truly an honor beyond words to be in their presence and to get a more realistic view of them.

I am a proud member of the 10th Mountain Division's Descendant's group, made up of family members of these veterans. We feel so strongly about our fathers, grandfathers, and uncles that we want to keep the legacy alive. Some of the descendants' family's soldiers died in the war. For them it's a very special connection to the man they never knew. The descendant's group will take over the reunion planning and has initiatives to gather oral histories from the soldiers and support them and the current soldiers. We want to be sure these men and their accomplishments are not forgotten. We want to make certain that the current 10th Mountain Division–Light Infantry, serving in the mountains of Afghanistan, know their ties to the guys of the original 10th. What an outfit they were, and still are.

When my nephews said last week that they didn't know much about my father's service, I felt embarrassed that I hadn't made the effort to teach them about their grandpa's contributions. I hadn't made sure they'd seen the documentaries about the 10th or the videos I'd made of Dad, and the audio recordings of their great-grandfather. I know it's up to me and my sisters to make sure the next generation has that opportunity. The men and women who have served in the military—whether in World Wars I or II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, or Afghanistan—may not be the ones to initiate conversations about their experiences, so it's up to us to assist. So many of us have family members who are veterans. What do we really know about the part of their lives they spent in military service?  

My 11-year-old piano student, Katherine, showed me photo of her grandfather yesterday. He was in uniform in the photo and she proudly stated that her grandpa was a veteran of World War II. I reminded her that there was a special holiday coming up on Nov. 11 to honor all veterans. She replied, "I'll have to call up Grandpa and say thank you!"

What a good idea. I hope all of you will follow her example and remember to thank and honor the veterans in your family.

Tips for Honoring Veterans in Your Family:

Celebrate Veterans Day on Nov. 11. Originally Armistice Day, this was a day to celebrate and remember the end of WWI—November 11, 1918, at 11 a.m. In 1954, Congress changed the name to "Veterans Day" to honor the millions of veterans of all U.S. wars. Many communities hold parades and ceremonies, among other events. Take time to thank a veteran for his or her service. Listen to and tell the stories of your family’s veterans past and present to younger family members. They are probably interested but just don't think to ask.

Interview a veteran in your family. Record or write an oral history of your family member's military experiences. There are many books and online resources that provide interview questions, including the Veteran's History Project, which offers online forms and kits you can print.

Take a veteran to school. The History Channel is sponsoring an initiative to link veterans of all ages with young people in schools and communities. This way, we can show how much we value the vets' service and how much we have to learn from them. Visit for a how-to guide, teacher resources, and video clips.

Get out the memorabilia. Encourage the veterans in your family to open that old footlocker and get out their keepsakes. It may have been a long time since they took a look. Ask questions; get them to explain what the medals are for and how they wore their uniform. What kind of equipment do they still have, such as a mess kit, ammunition, or uniforms? Do they still have a copy of their commission papers? How did they feel when they got drafted? Many times these items will stir memories better than anything else.

Make a shadowbox. Display flags, medals, insignia, uniforms, hats, badges, challenge coins, photos, and other memorabilia from your family member's military service.

Create a scrapbook. Gather your family member's important documents, such as enlistment papers, commissions, orders, certificates of release or discharge papers, awards, badges, photos, letters, or draft notifications.

Watch a documentary or a movie as a family. Learn about the history of the military service your family member belonged to, or watch a movie that dramatizes the conflict in which your relative served. Sometimes that will make it more real for younger family members.

Make a family donation to an organization that supports military veterans. There are many organizations supporting disabled veterans, veteran's homes, and services for veterans.

Visit a Veterans Administration hospital or a retirement community or nursing home for veterans. Bring some good cheer to the veterans who haven't had visitors for a while. Even if your family member who served in the military isn't here for you to thank, you can honor him or her by reaching out to veterans in your community.