One of my favorite family photographs was taken this summer on the deck of the USS Midway.
My dad, a retired Navy flight officer, posed proudly with his granddaughters and me in front of an aircraft painted with his squadron's logo, the Hormel Hawgs: a red razorback pig fiercely charging across a blue background.
As my husband took that picture of my father and me, holding hands with my little girls, the same age now that my sister and I were when our dad was strapped into that plane, I cried.
I finally realized how risky what he did for this country was. And I finally understood how hard it was for him to be away from us to do it. Pop has gray hair now. His bright blue eyes are faded from years of squinting in the sun from the back seat of an airplane. He is humble about his military service. Modest. He shakes off any praise for what he did, points to my mom and says that she's the one who deserves to be saluted. I agree.
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Now as a wife and mother, I finally see that my mom's sacrifices were just as big as my dad's.
"If the Navy wanted you to have a family, they would issue you one," she used to say. She gave up her career, lived with never-ending stress, worried constantly about my dad, had to be a single parent when he was deployed, and supported him in ways I am still just beginning to understand.
Only one of my parents wore a uniform. But both of them are heroes.
I am scared by the high price of freedom. Not everyone comes back home.
I cry when I hear "Amazing Grace" played on a bagpipe. Military families know when that song is played on that instrument, someone in tears will be handed an American flag precisely folded into a tight triangle by a solemn, white-gloved servicemember in a dark dress uniform. It means that another patriot has taken the final watch, and faded away. Heard their last reveille, and reported for duty in the great rotunda of Valhalla. It means that their loved ones will bear an unimaginable burden. It is every military family's worst fear.
I love the stories my dad tells about when he and my mom were newlyweds, living on love and spaghetti in a little apartment in Pensacola, Fla. He says the only way he got through semaphore class at Navy Flight Officer School was because of her. Mom was the smart one, valedictorian of her high school class.
She worked 12-hour shifts as a nurse, then came home and helped him study by drilling him for hours with flash cards she made of the different flag combinations.
Fifty seven years of marriage later, she reminds him that the only signal he could consistently recall was whiskey. When he finally graduated and got his commission, that became his call sign.
As an adult, I treasure the letters he sent us when he was at sea. Gone for months at a time to be wingman on missions he still won't discuss, over countries he still won't name, for reasons he still won't say. But his letters betray none of that. In precise pages of his overhand leftie cursive, Pop cheerfully reminded us, "Be good girls for your Mom." "Study hard." "Take care of each other."
I know how much he loved all of us. I can't imagine how hard it was on both of them when he was gone. Military families understand that liberty doesn't come cheap.
Retired United States Navy Commander James "Whiskey" Wright gave this country more than three decades of distinguished military service in some of the most dangerous places in the world. And his wingman of 57 years, my mom Beverly Wright, paid for it. It was adebt she settled here at home with hundreds of sleepless nights spent worrying. There were endless months of single parenting and those hours of helping my dad memorize the flags he might someday need to signal help. She was always carrying the fear that someday she, too, might be handed a neatly folded flag while "Amazing Grace" is played on a bagpipe. Pop is right: she deserves to be saluted as much as he does.
Only one of them wore a uniform. But both of them are heroes.