Walter Borneman: On Armed Forces Day, let’s honor those who serve and remember families fight wars, too

Families fight wars. Governments bluster and declare, but the resultant blood that is spilled and the injuries that are sustained — even if unseen — are deeply personal. Those in uniform bear the burden directly, but it cascades across families from spouses and children to siblings and parents. It is the price of freedom and there have always been those willing to pay it.

Wars are indeed fought by entire families. One does not have to be on the frontlines to be profoundly affected by the fight. Frequently, the service and sacrifice is generational. The proud Navy legacy of four generations of the storied McCain family — four John Sidney McCains — is deservedly well known. Many others should be, too.

Thomas Augusta Free served his country in the United States Navy during World War I. Afterward “Gussie,” as he was nicknamed, tried to make a living farming in Texas. There was something either in the soil or his blood that he couldn’t make work. So Gussie re-joined the Navy and sailed the seas as a machinist’s mate. For the son and daughter left behind, his parental presence was crammed into annual leaves and postcards dispatched from far-flung ports.


None of this dissuaded his son, William, from enlisting when he came of age. After basic training, William reported to the battleship Arizona at Pearl Harbor. On Oct. 10, 1941, Gussie transferred to the Arizona looking for one last ship to round out his 27 career and a chance to make up lost time with his son. On a Sunday morning two months later, father and son lost their lives together. Daughter Marie was left alone with two purple hearts — one for her father and one for her brother.

As we remember the men and women of our armed forces, let us also remember that they do not serve alone.

There were 38 sets of brothers serving with Gussie and William Free on the Arizona that December morning. Brothers Tony and Stanley Czarnecki hailed from Michigan. Their job was tending the ship’s boilers. Stanley was killed in the attack. Tony was ashore with his wife and never got over his survivors’ guilt. But unfortunately, the Czarnecki family was not done paying the price. A younger brother, Henry, joined the Army and was killed as the 85th Division clawed its way into the Po Valley in northern Italy in the closing weeks of the war.

After World War II, President Harry Truman proclaimed the third Saturday in May as Armed Forces Day. It was originally meant to replace the traditional service birthdays with a single day to celebrate the combination of the five branches of the American military — Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Air Force — into the new Department of Defense. First observed on May 20, 1950, the day has grown into the centerpiece of a military appreciation month that honors all individuals serving in uniform as well as their families.

Those who commemorated the first Armed Forces Day in 1950 had no way of knowing that within two months active duty personnel, World War II veterans who thought their wars were over, and a new generation of draftees would be sent to Korea. I once asked my dad, who had done his own tour in the Southwest Pacific, why his best friend acted strangely at times. “He was at Pork Chop Hill,” my dad said matter-of-factly. “Oh,” my 8-year old voice replied, not really comprehending what that meant.

Later, we baby boomers drew our draft lottery numbers. Two of my friends shared birthdays; suddenly, they also shared draft numbers. One joined the Marines; the other loaded bombs for the Air Force in Thailand. Thirty-five years later, the girlfriend who once cried with relief over my high number was a grieving mother who lost her firstborn to a roadside bomb in northern Iraq. Sergeant First Class Ronald Tanner Wood was a long-serving member of the Utah Army National Guard; his grandfather had been a veteran of the 10th Mountain Division during World War II.


"It is fitting and proper,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said on Armed Forces Day, “that we devote one day each year to paying special tribute to those whose constancy and courage constitute one of the bulwarks guarding the freedom of this nation and the peace of the free world."

Such constancy and courage has always been a family affair. On this Saturday, as we remember the men and women of our armed forces, let us also remember that they do not serve alone.