As a kid, I thought Armed Forces Day was in the lineup with Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and Valentine’s. I knew it wasn’t religious, per se, but growing up on military posts, it might as well have been.
Today, Fort Bliss celebrates Armed Forces Day on Noel Field, and for all the youngsters who run barefoot through the grass, play pickup games of softball, and lick patriot-colored Rocket Pops, I’m sure it feels as holiday in spirit as any.
The first Armed Forces Day was in 1949 and it kicked off nationally with parades, open houses, air shows and parties dedicated to servicemen and women of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. Being an Army brat, I see it as both a tribute to military personnel and a celebration of the military family.
I remember when I was ten years old and a civilian school friend who lived ‘off-post’ asked me why I couldn’t come to her house on Saturday. “Because it’s Armed Forces Day!” I balked. I was even more flabbergasted when she shrugged her shoulders and asked, “What’s that?” From my decade-long life perspective, this was the equivalent of someone not knowing about the 4th of July. Unbelievable.
It took long, hard contemplation and a whole bus ride home to wrap my brain around the fact that people who lived outside the security fences of military posts, bases, and forts may not have a clue about our cherished day. And that was practically the whole world! This ‘ah-ha!’ moment was akin to my discovery of Santa as a fictitious phantom. And like that knowledge, I found a way to mentally digest this new realization: I pitied my poor friend. She was one holiday short of a full deck.
Civilians have a hard time understanding the exuberant glee of a structured, guarded world gone circus-happy. As a kid, living on Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, I remember walking to the parade grounds with neighbors and friends, flags waving, color guards twirling rifles, jets zooming overhead, the air alive with sugary fair foods and big band music. On that one day a year, I got to see firsthand what my dad did for a living. I got to crawl inside the big tanks and look through the periscope. My imagination soared, my heart raced, and my dad was the hero of the world. It was magical.
In my teens, my family moved ‘off-post’ and my first May in the civilian world came and went with no flag-flying parades, no jets streaking the sky, no Army green-themed parties or—gasp!—my even noticing. By the time I remembered, it was midsummer and I felt like Benedict Arnold.
With Memorial Day just around the bend, Armed Forces Day often gets lost in the American conscious. Are there one too many days dedicated to the men and women committed to honor, duty and country? I don’t think so. All grown up and married to an Army physician, I stop to recognize today’s significance on the national scale and in my life.
In addition, this Armed Forces Day my thoughts are with my younger brother Jason. He’s just arrived in Iraq for a 12-month tour of duty with the 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood. I vividly recall him, cherubic and bubbling with excitement, climbing onto the deck of a parked helicopter on Armed Forces Day 1989; someone put a helmet on him, three sizes too big, and he smiled wide and toothy from behind the cockpit controls. He’s flying Chinooks over Baghdad now.
I wonder if soldiers in combat zones celebrate today. Parades and bandstands, probably not. But I hope they’re given something in reverence, even if it’s just a moment to themselves, a moment to let their guards down and breathe easy. That’s my prayer—that my brother and all the brave servicemen and women have a day of peace.