My Uncle Junior was a very handsome man. Born Ezra Fleener, Jr. on February 29, 1924, he was called "Junior" from birth. With a talent in woodworking, his furniture now has a prominent place in the homes of each member of my immediate family. While academics were not his strong suit, he could do just about anything with his hands. If he wasn't woodworking, he could be found fixing something. While in high school, he worked in the family-owned D-X Service Station. He later worked as a mechanic for TransAmerica Freight Lines. Uncle Junior had a strong sense of humor that was often seen in his practical jokes.
I know my Uncle Junior only by the stories passed on by my father and my Aunt Jeannie. When he was 20 years old, he was killed in World War II.
Uncle Junior graduated from high school in 1942. He entered the Marines in the spring of 1943, when he was 18 years old. His job in the Marines was to drive an amphibious tractor, hauling personnel from the ship to the beachhead. On July 21, 1944, while fighting a battle to re-take Guam, Uncle Junior was killed. He dropped off his first load of marines on the beach, turned the tractor around, and was hit by a mortar shell.
My father was nine years old when his brother was killed. While he remembers very little about his older brother, he vividly remembers when the telegram was delivered, informing the family of Junior's death. The scene is etched in his mind as he remembers the emotional devastation that followed. The community responded with great emotion, as well. By that time three or four other young men in the small town of Mooresville, Indiana, had been killed while on duty.
Four years later, when Dad was 13, a Marine accompanied Junior's body from his temporary grave in Guam to his permanent resting place in Mooresville. A graveside service complete with a 21-gun salute brought some closure to this terrible loss in their lives.
Uncle Junior gave his life for you and me. He died protecting the freedom of our children and our grandchildren. His story is just one of thousands of similar stories of lives lost fighting for freedom.
My children will only know their Great-Uncle Junior through the stories I pass on to them. They will only appreciate the freedoms in this country if my husband and I help them understand.
Thursday is Veterans Day, a day set aside to honor those who have served honorably in the military. In the midst of our busy day, let's tell our children about the Uncle Juniors of this world. Need a place to start? Try some of these ideas:
- If a family member lost their life in the war, pull out a family picture album featuring their photos. Place the album on a coffee table for the week to allow the family to look at the pictures and ask questions.
- If you don't know the family stories yourself, ask a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle to share with you and your kids. Even if extended family live far away, a phone call can open the door to learning more about family members you never knew.
- When sitting down for a family meal Thursday evening, tell your children about Veterans Day. Help them understand why it is important to honor those who protect and fight for our freedom.
- Visit the grave of a family member who died in the service. Talk to your children about who they were and what they were like. Place a small flag on the grave to show honor.
- If you don't have a family gravesite to visit, walk through a cemetery and search for graves of those who lost their lives in the service. Often the headstones have a military insignia etched on them.
- Visit a park where the names of those who died in a war are etched in a memorial.Imagine what some of those people must have been like. What might have been their hobbies? Their family status? This helps bring the names alive for your children.
- Visit with a veteran who can share what serving their country in the military was like for them. Ask them about the challenges and the valuable experience it gave them.
- Display an American flag at your home. Have your kids help you put the flag out and explain to them what our flag represents.
As parents and grandparents, you and I play an important role in helping our children understand the unique country in which we live. We have to share the stories from generation to generation. Join me today in making this Veterans Day truly a holiday to remember.
Jill Savage (www.jillsavage.org) is an author and speaker who addresses family matters. She is the founder of Hearts at Home, www.hearts-at-home.org, and lives with her husband and five children in Normal, Illinois.
Original publication date: November 11, 2005