27 May 2012

We Are Not a Military Family

Many moons ago, my Grandmother Elsie started a family tradition. Each year, we would all gather at Uncle Boone’s house on Memorial Day for a potluck and visit to the local cemetery. My paternal side is well represented in that cemetery, and she felt it was incredibly important to remember those people. I agree. We would all bring flowers, clean up the headstones, and enjoy the peaceful serenity of that place. This is where my love of cemeteries first developed.

My favorite spot here is a small section, downhill from the main part of the property. If you sneak down this hill, you are right on the edge of the beautiful Pacific Northwest forest, and there is an older tree next to a row of Brown’s. It’s a fantastic little spot, and I couldn’t think of a better place for those relatives of mine to rest.

Even though Grandma has been gone some time, the tradition lives on. I now live four states away, and unfortunately cannot participate each year as I once did. But, my family and I carry on, visiting our local cemetery, leaving flowers for the veterans and cleaning their headstones. It’s still an incredibly important day on the calendar.

When I started my genealogical journey over a decade ago, I would have told you, “We are not a military family.” Yes, my father was in the Navy, and my brother in the Army Reserves. Yes, I have a handful of cousins that were, or are, active duty in one way or another. But we really aren’t a military family.

I realized pretty quickly how wrong I was.

Capt. Oscar F. Brown
Private holdings of author.
My great-great grandfather, Capt. Oscar F. Brown, served in two units during the Civil War, most notably, the Mississippi Marine Brigade, which served on board ramming vessels patrolling the Mississippi River. They would try to outrun, blockade and preferably sink Confederate ships by crashing into them. The Marine unit, of which my ancestor was a member, would most often disembark onto the banks prior to the engagement, then travel by foot to the action and shoot from shore. They did, upon occasion, stay on the boat and fight from the water. They were a unique unit in many ways, and quite obscure among Civil War researchers. They were also one of the only units during the war to act under federal jurisdiction, rather than a state.

After his discharge, Oscar homesteaded in Nebraska, where he married and raised his family. He died there, but after his death, his wife, Frances, followed her children to Washington State. She is buried in the Orting Soldiers Home Cemetery as a veteran’s widow.  Of their six descendants, only one, Warren, the youngest, served in the Armed Forces. Like his father, he was on boats, but during World War I, he enlisted in the Navy. We know he was a Machinist, and he probably served on submarines, based on our photo archives. Surviving the war, he lived out his later years in Oregon and California, and died in 1945. He is buried in the Los Angeles National Cemetery, and I hope that one of these years I can get there for Memorial Day.  

2nd Lt. Robert L Brown
Private holdings of author.
The next generation brought a new war, of course. My grandfather wanted to enlist very much, but was turned away from the Army. His brothers, however, both joined, one in the Merchant Marines and one in the Army Air Force. My father’s uncles carried on this unknown tradition. 

Maybe it was known to them?

Author's father, as a young sailor.
Private holdings of author.
Then my father. He served 18 years for the United States Navy during the Vietnam period. In the Navy, he learned his lifelong craft of photography, met my mother, and had their first three children. I am the last and the only one who cannot claim to be a “Navy baby.”  His service stories I can recite to you verbatim, we’ve heard them so many times over our lifetime, but I still never thought of myself as a veteran’s daughter growing up.

Author's brother, US Army.
Private holdings of author.
My brother enlisted in the Army Reserves the summer before I entered the sixth grade.  When he left, I was shocked and saddened; I just did not understand that he wasn't going to be a part of my day to day life anymore. I still have the letters he sent home from boot camp and that first year of training. During the first engagement in Kuwait in the early 90’s, I was petrified he was going to be called to Active Duty, and he came very close from what I was told. I also had one paternal cousin that enlisted, and still have a couple on my maternal side that are serving.

We know with certainty that we have five generations of military service in my father’s line.  There are four theories as to who Oscar’s Dad was, and that is my biggest brick wall at this time. Two of those possible men were also veteran’s, both having served in the War of 1812. If one of those turns out to be his father, then we really have six generations. If my great-great-great grandfather turns out to be the man I think he is, than our family goes back to the Revolutionary War. I'm sure we're not the only people in this country that can say we've served in nearly every major conflict fought by American forces since the Civil War. We are lucky enough, however, to have not lost anyone to these engagements. So, on this Memorial Day, I will take time to remember, and I hope you will too. I will continue my grandmother's tradition, I will ensure that my three year old daughter lays flowers on the grave of a veteran. 

I am proud to say, we are a military family.

The headstone for Frances E. (Lawrence)
Brown, widow of Civil War veteran Oscar
F. Brown. Buried in the Orting Soldiers Home
Cemetery, Orting, Washington.
Photo: Private holdings of author.


  1. What a great summary, Sister!

    A few details, if you do not have them: I enlisted in the Army Reserve the summer before my senior year of high school, and attended reserve drills from July 1989 onwards. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait occurred in the middle of by basic training, and the massive mobilization and deployment known as Operation Desert Shield changed the pace of that training, and my subsequent medical skill training.

    Upon my release back to real life, on 15 January 1991--the deadline for Saddam to remove his occupation of Kuwait--I was told that all in my job title from my unit were in process of deployment to Saudi Arabia. I, too, would go as soon as my records caught up with me in those pre-email, pre-Internet days. Thus, we kept my dufflebag of uniforms and other equipment issued to me by the front door of the house, just waiting for the call to report for duty to Fort Lewis.

    That call never came, mainly because the war ended before my records were received at my unit. They arrived a week or so after Desert Storm ended. The whole experience--my first real experience as a post-high school adult--is the most formative set of events of my life: I learned to put life in perspective, and it planted a seed of a lifelong interest in the Middle East region, and gave me a good dose of seeing "how the other half lives" in terms of who serves in the military and the hardships these face.

    Anyhow, as all this was going on, I don't think I was aware of any family military tradition outside of Dad and Uncle Bob (the Army Air Force aviator). I never felt any obligation to serve for any tradition-related reasons, and to be blunt, my decision to sign up at that time in my life was much more about finding ways to make ends meet, than any sense of patriotism. I didn't have the luxury of such feelings back then, and I know a lot of folks who were serving with me were in the same boat.--Charlie

    1. Hey Big Brother; thanks so much for the details. Certainly adds more depth to my post! :-) I know I have discussed the lack of emotion about our military past with the sisters, but I'm not sure that I ever really knew how you felt, or if you were "given" a more significant sense of responsibility towards the military, since you were the only boy. I've always meant to discuss it with you, but that period conjures up negative emotion for me, so I've avoided it. Thank you for sharing your history with me here.
      Talk soon ~ Jen

  2. Great post Jen!

    I hadn't known until now that the US Navy had ANY submarines in World War I, but your post encouraged me to check this out. See http://www.navy.mil/navydata/cno/n87/usw/issue_22/ww1.htm

    Also, you might be interested in this post of mine re military ancestors: http://stephenrettie.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/brothers-in-arms-earned-in-blood/

    1. Hi Stephen,
      The WWI subs were certainly a scary venture, I think! Thanks for sharing the link. I did read your post, enjoyed it, shared it, and added to my RSS, so thanks for that, too! Hopefully we can continue to compare notes. Thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting! ~ Jen

  3. I knew my father hadn't served, but I didn't know my grandfather was in the Navy until I joined myself. Or maybe I'd been told but it never processed. He died when I was seen, so I hardly remember him. My dad was surprised by my unawareness, but I think it had just never occured to him that he'd never shared any of his father's stories. He served on the Louisville as a Machinist Mate during WW II and I think was called back up for Korea. I stil want to get my hands on cruise books.

    And of course, you know about Elmo Banning, who was someone else I didn't know about until much later. Goes to show you should talk to your kids!

    1. Merinda, isn't it odd how "little" details in a family get overlooked? Of course, to your grandfather, that would have been life changing, so its curious that the stories were never told, at least not enough for you to remember. Try Ebay for the cruise books; I have a couple of my Dad's, and their wonderful. I've seen random ones on there.
      Thanks for commenting! ~Jen

    2. My grandma had his, but she would never let anyone go look around the attic for them. She just got moved to a home a couple months ago and I keep meaning to ask my dad if anyone had looked for them. She'd always wanted him to have them anyway as he's her only surviving son (my Uncle died about twenty years ago). Heck I just learned that same Uncle was in the military a couple years ago too, apparently he was about to be drafted during Vietnam, so he enlisted instead and spent his time on Guam.

    3. Huh. My Dad served on Guam, too. Do you know what years your uncle was there?
      Attic's are fantastic sources - get in there! :-)

  4. Hi Jen, sorry to only get back to this now... Life has intervened.

    I never felt pressured to enlist because I was our family's only son. That said, I don't know that I felt I had many other options--I was not immediately college-bound, and I was given the same talk by "guidance" counselors that Dad got from the same high school in about 1957-58ish: you're grades are so poor no college will take you. You may a) get a job on a local dairy, b) look for work in a local timber company, or c) join the military.
    Thus I felt c) was my only real option. Some time later, after seeing I was not a good fit in my reserve unit, I grew quite resentful for a time, that at no point in this period was community college mentioned as a viable option. But I found my way.

    All of this to underscore how secondary any thought to "duty" or "patriotism" was in this process.--Charlie


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