A Soldier to the End

Dear Larry:

You were stunned when I told you that when I was 18 and planned to go to college that I had no idea what I was going to study.  You looked at me as if I were speaking Chinese to you.  You told me that you always assumed people knew what they were intended to do at a very early age and planned their lives around those decisions.  I laughed and informed you that you were oh so wrong.  Most people do not have a clue what they want to do and, after all, wasn’t that what college was for?  Explore possibilities?  Try different areas of study?   Play?  Do things that would make your parents cringe if the knew?  Your response was a serious and firm, “NO”.

The young 8-year-old Larry defined his purpose and planned his life from that point.  You wanted to be a career military officer.  In high school, you fearlessly put yourself in leadership roles where your experience in managing and empowering people began.  The standards you put on yourself were always higher than the ones you expected of others, but your dedication always raised the bar. 

In college you found that you had quite a gift and stood out on a national level for performance on precision military drill teams.  All of your life, you sported on your hands the scars from the bayonets that cut you when you did not catch the rifle correctly.  That just showed that there was a need for “Practice, practice, practice” and less than perfection was not going to cut it.

The story that you told about one leadership position involved ROTC at your college.  I will not go into all of the details because it bordered on larceny at the worst and bad taste at the least.  You said that ROTC needed money and your end justified your means.   Needless to say, the money goal was accomplished, and the ROTC got the needed equipment.  Your college ROTC buddies know this story and are laughing as they read this!  I must admit it was a clever scam and applauded the effort.

You were proud to be commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the US Army on the same day that you received your undergraduate degree.  This was the day you waited for since you were 8 years old!   Your proudest time was not your time in Vietnam.  It was your time spent in Germany with the 509th.  You were propelled into a leadership role into an area where you had no expertise.  Your job was to be sure that every mechanized machine in Germany was in proper working condition so that it could be sent into the war zone.  Oh, you could change your oil and repair a tire, but this was far beyond those skills.  Also, you were painfully aware that the lives of soldiers would depend on how well you did your job.  This was a very serious obligation and you embraced the significance of the role.  You also knew that a job well done would propel your career in the Army.

Years later, you took me to Washington DC where we visited several times with your commanding officer who was a retired Three Star General.  He was your mentor and you admired him so much that you named your first son Stephen honoring him.  It was during these visits that the General shared his memories of Germany and the time that you served with him.  As he spoke, I realized that as much as you respected the General, he also respected you.  He shared that of all of the years he served it the Army and of all of his commands, that you and your fellow officers were the ones he most admired.  He spoke of your sacrifice by working days at a time with no sleep and no contact with your family.  You accomplished the impossible and he knew he demanded it from all of you.  There was no task, no matter how unreasonable, you could not complete.  We laughed as you told him stories of getting assignments accomplished and how you did them.  You were both out of the Army and, I guess, you thought the statutes of limitations were over!  There was a story about preparing for an inspection and none of your vehicles were functioning.  The budget was very limited as were spare parts.  You told the General how you recruited one of your less reputable privates to go to another company and “acquire” the parts needed.  All you asked of the private was to put the parts on your desk and no one would speak of it again.  Beer or cigarettes may have been incentive.    The General laughed and applauded your initiative.    His instinct was that something nefarious had occurred but thought it was better simply to look the other way.  I realized that he admired you as much as you admired him.

We took our granddaughter to Washington DC for her 8th grade trip and you arranged another visit with the General and his wife.  Before we left, you bought two silver charms to be added to the bracelet we had begun for her.  When we arrived at their home, you asked the General to present the charms to our granddaughter.  We sat at their dining room table and the General told her the story of the 509th, the 101st and the significance of the Airborne wings.   The General’s wife showed our granddaughter her charm bracelet filled with 40 years of charms reflecting her husband’s successful military career.  It is sweet to remember that day ad how important it was to you to share this part of your life with our granddaughter.  I was so proud to be your wife!

After you returned safely from Vietnam, you had the option to sign a new contract and stay in the Army or complete your commitment and resign your commission to return to the United States.  Your choice was to resign and begin a new career. 

In some ways, it did not matter.  For you, being a soldier was not a job.  It was your way to be in the world.  It was a standard of life which could not be compromised.  Being a soldier was living in integrity, honor, keeping your promises, caring for your family, setting higher standards, mentoring and teaching your young sons to become honorable men.  You changed from a uniform to a suit and you wore it well!  Your military posture was the perfect form for a beautiful suit.  You had more shoes that I did, and each was shined with a cedar shoe tree inserted.  Each shoe was wrapped in its own felt bag and neatly lined up in our closet.    You looked impeccable and so distinguished with your beautiful head of prematurely gray hair.   You were very aware of the impression you intended to make.

After you died, I sat in our closet holding your clothes and searching for something that smelled like your cologne.   I looked at your beautiful suits and shoes and tortured myself with the obligation of finding the perfect set of clothes for what was to come and knowing that it was my duty as your wife to be sure that you looked as I thought you would want to look.  Suit?  Tux? Blazer? No.  None of these were right.

My choice for you for that day, my love, was your black shirt with the Airborne logo and your black jacket with the 509th patch.  I thought it would have been exactly what you would have chosen.  We tucked in Challenge Coins so you could take them with you.  Every man who had served in the military passed by you on that day, stood at attention and saluted you one last time.  It was their way to offer you, Captain Voss, a final honor.  Twenty-one guns.  Taps.  A flag.  This cannot be happening.  Please do not leave me! 

I found a duplicate set of the silver charms in your desk drawer.  I wish I knew who you intended to give these to because I did not know that you even bought them.  They have been tucked away in the drawer for at least 7 years.  For now, I wear your 101st charm and Airborne wings on a chain around my neck every day.    If you had bought them for me, you would have given them to me long ago.  Know that when I pass them along to our granddaughters that I will share the story and how important this part of your life was to you.

We talked about how significant your Army career was to you and how it was the satisfaction of your life goal.  You loved it and you were good at it.  There was no doubt that you loved the work we did together by building our business from nothing to now in our 38th year.  We worked hard and were a great team.  But I always sensed that the military was your passion.  I remember one night asking you if you ever regretted leaving the Army.  Your reply was, “No, because if I would have stayed in the Army, I would never have met you”.

You, my love, were a soldier to the end.  From my soul I say to you, Thank You for your service to our country and Thank you for allowing me the privilege to be your wife.

I love you and I miss you,

P