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Uncle Sandy's War

Uncle Sandy's War

Andrew Himes and daughter Amber Himes Cornell, the night before her wedding to Dave Cornell

In early July of 2007, I was in San Diego for the wedding of my daughter Amber to a Navy helicopter pilot named Dave Cornell, a guy with a cheerful countenance and a wry sense of humor, highly competent, responsible, and smart as a whip. Just the kind of fellow you'd want to have driving a multimillion-dollar rotor-equipped bird off the deck of a carrier. Dave was about as different from me as could be. (I assumed that meant Amber had very few "father" issues remaining for her work to out. A good thing, no?) He was stocky and physically coordinated, whereas I was skinny, formerly dark-haired, and sometimes found it challenging to tie my shoes correctly, which was why I had worked so hard to learn how to juggle and unicycle earlier, in Amber's toddler years. (I'll tell you more about my putative circus skills later; for the moment, I don't want to lose track of this story about war and warriors.)

Getting to know Dave took me on a journey I had not expected. It was not just that I would have a new member of my own family who was in the military – and a combat veteran of the Iraq War, which I had opposed. It was also that I was learning to respect and admire Dave's underlying motivations. I was beginning to see that Dave's impulse to service and patriotism, his desire to defend and protect and be part of something bigger than himself and his own individual ambitions and needs, were not that different from my own deepest motivations and my own desire to make a difference in the world. Dave's desire to live a life with a purpose larger than himself was similar to my own desire, and it resonated with the principles and values that I had wanted to instill in my own daughter as she grew up. In order to appreciate Dave, I had to learn how to translate from my personal experience to his, and to see the world from his point of view.

Amber and Dave had known each other for years, ever since going to nearby colleges in San Diego. Amber worked on her doctorate in Sicily during the first few years of the Iraq War, while Dave spent those years in the Navy, including on a long carrier cruise to the Persian Gulf where he flew twenty-eight combat missions into Iraq from Kuwait. Finally, in 2005, when Amber finished her degree and Dave's aircraft carrier came home to San Diego, they moved into a little apartment in San Diego and began heading in the direction of their marriage. The wedding took place on July 7th, 2007 (the most popular day in the history of weddings, I am told) in the perpetual sunshine of San Diego, in a pretty little Episcopal church on Coronado Island next to Dave's Navy base.

Amber Himes Cornell and her new husband Dave Cornell

Amber and Dave had gone on a long journey to arrive at that wedding, across miles and continents, leaping over cultural gaps, across oceans, over mountains, spanning ideological and political divides. For one thing, Dave had supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and went willingly to serve in that war while Amber was as sharply opposed to the war as was her father.

The day before the wedding, I sat at a family breakfast in a Mexican restaurant in the Old Town section of San Diego talking to my Uncle Walt, a non-veteran like me, a tall, thoughtful man who had translucent skin the fine-wrinkled texture of old parchment, and a knack for preaching provocative and entertaining sermons. Uncle Walt had spent over sixty years as a Baptist preacher, as had eight or ten of my uncles and great uncles.

Wasn't it interesting, I said, that Dave would be the first military man in my family?

I had met so many veterans and family members of veterans over the past few years that I had begun to assume almost everybody I met had a military connection in their family – but not mine. Relatives of mine who most recently wore uniforms were soldiers in the American Civil War, including at least three of my great-great-grandfathers.

"You mean you don't know about your Uncle Sandy?" said Uncle Walt. "He fought in World War II, you know."

This was news to me! Uncle Sandy was over 80, and I had known him since I was born in 1950. I thought I knew him well. But he had never said one word about having a personal military history.