Emily Compagno: On Memorial Day I remember my military family and all who have paid the ultimate sacrifice

If you are aware of the work I do, likely you know I am committed to bringing awareness to the needs of our United States service members and veterans, and to the selfless individuals and organizations dedicated to getting those needs met.

Perhaps not as well known, however, might be why I hold that commitment. Besides being a patriot who fiercely loves my country, with infinite gratitude and respect for those who risk or sacrifice their lives for everything this country stands for, including my freedom, I have two personal reasons: I hail proudly from a strong military family and my firsthand experience visiting our deployed U.S. troops in Kuwait and Iraq in 2009.

My dad was a commander in the U.S. Navy with three daughters -- you can imagine the tight ship that was our family household!

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Before I could go out with friends I had to get my room “ready for inspection,” and a good chunk of our family bonding time besides the kids’ activities were definitely all the chores we did. Which I loved.

John Compagno, U.S. Navy commander in a photo from 1977

John Compagno, U.S. Navy commander in a photo from 1977

He was a pathologist at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), and I was born at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital where he was the Blood Bank Director at the time (with no shortage of vampire jokes).

I remember the day I realized it was not “normal” at my school to carry lunch in a specimen bag …His impeccable standards, insatiable intellectual appetite, and never-ending work ethic blessed us all.

The larger family picture is that my whole family has served in uniform.

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My relatives fought overseas and far away in all the wars and all the conflicts from Sicily and England and France and Germany and the Pacific Theater and the Philippines to the Sudetenland Resistance.

They died all over the European battlefields – from Flanders Fields to the Russian Front. American forces -- and British and Italian. My grandfathers and uncles. All my great uncles and all my great-great uncles. Great indeed. And they -- my family -- are a part of history, just like all who serve, and all who have died on our behalf.

My great-great-uncle Joseph Lorenz was a Private 1C in the U.S. Army. He was a member of the American Expeditionary Force, Rainbow Division, and died fighting in World War I in France.

Great great uncle Joseph Lorenz, U.S. Army Private 1C, WWI, ca. 1917

Great great uncle Joseph Lorenz, U.S. Army Private 1C, WWI, ca. 1917

He is buried in Suresnes, where the cemetery keeper rubs his tombstone with sand to ensure the letters remain legible, and places flowers at the gravesites, sending Polaroid photos of this gesture of respect to remaining family annually on Memorial Day. While convalescing after his first injury and amputation, but before he died, Uncle Joe was well enough at one point to send a letter home via a Red Cross nurse – oh, how those nurses played such an instrumental role in those soldiers’ and their families’ wellbeing.

His sister, my great-great aunt Luella Lorenz Cochran, served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in World War II as a field nurse anesthetist on the front lines.

Great great aunt Lorenz Cochran, U.S. Army Nurse Corps, WWII

Great great aunt Lorenz Cochran, U.S. Army Nurse Corps, WWII

One world war later, she visited her brother’s grave in Suresnes while deployed, writing home how she “hated to say goodbye to [her] soldier brother,” whom she had described as “lovable” and so “easy going.”

During World War II, there were nine members of her immediate family in the Armed Services: Army, Navy, Air Corps, and Marines.

Later in life, after her honorable discharge as a first lieutenant and after she earned her Master’s degree from Fordham University under the G.I. Bill, she responded to a question whether she still “waves the Flag” with: “Yep, but not for me or those who wave it with me, but for you.” When I think of her service, I think of the comfort she must have brought to all those soldiers in the field hospitals, some of whom undoubtedly shared their final earthly moments with her at their bedside.

Some of you history buffs may know President Coolidge allocated $5 million in 1929 for the Gold Star Mother Pilgrimage, a temporary U.S. government program that paid the travel expenses to the gravesites for mothers and widows whose sons and husbands had died overseas as members of the American Expeditionary Forces during the war.

In 1930, my great-great grandmother Rosa (after whom I am named, along with four other Roses in my family) traveled on the USS America along with 350 other Gold Star mothers to visit their children, buried in foreign soil.

Great great grandmother Rosa Lorenz at her son's grave at Suresnes Cemetery in France, part of the Gold Star Mother Pilgrimage in 1930

Great great grandmother Rosa Lorenz at her son's grave at Suresnes Cemetery in France, part of the Gold Star Mother Pilgrimage in 1930

The same week my Uncle Joe was first injured, so too was his brother in law injured in the same war: My great grandfather William Bertsch underwent a frightening battle injury in France.

Great grandfather William Bertsch, after his injury recovery, assigned to a POW camp because he spoke German, WWI ca.1918

Great grandfather William Bertsch, after his injury recovery, assigned to a POW camp because he spoke German, WWI ca.1918

Born in 1895, he served in the U.S. Army 1912-1946 and saw action in Veracruz, Mexico, through World War I, and on through World War II, finally retiring from the U.S. Army Air Corps after a lifetime of service.

His WWI Purple Heart was awarded after a shell exploded under him near Jaulgonne, throwing him up in the air and shooting shell fragments throughout his face – and he lay in a coma for one month.

An additional trauma occurred for his family, however. His wife Rose -- Joe and Lou’s sister -- received a telegram at home in Dayton, Ohio, that he was presumed dead, as he was missing after the terrible conflict; he was unconscious and could not identify himself.

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It was a full month later that Rose learned she was not a widow! Despite his impressive military decorations, we are especially proud of his Commendation Medal, awarded after he saved a drowning woman in the Mad River in Dayton.

We have many valorous battle stories in our family. I am equally proud of my great-great cousin Anton Lorenz, who served in the U.S. Navy as a cook. He was part of the Asiatic Fleet’s 1920s Yangtze River Patrol, and we have photographs of his historical ship.

Great-great cousin Anton Lorenz, U.S Navy Cook, 1925

Great-great cousin Anton Lorenz, U.S Navy Cook, 1925

He was present during another epic historical moment as well: On December 7, 1941, he was stationed at Pearl Harbor. He was one of the survivors. He, too, served his entire career for our country and retired as Chief Commissary Steward.

Some in our family made history during my lifetime. My second cousin once removed, Chris Baker, and his wife Angie were both U.S. Navy P-3 and EP-3 pilots supporting Operation Enduring Freedom (and raising five children!).

Second cousin once removed Chris and Angie Baker, U.S. Navy Lieutenants, 2003

Second cousin once removed Chris and Angie Baker, U.S. Navy Lieutenants, 2003

Since they were in different squadrons they never knew exactly where each was operating at any given time. They compared logbooks at one point and realized they were both flying over Afghanistan on the same night. As he likes to say, “I’m glad she didn’t shoot me down!”

My great uncle Ray Wolverson served in the U.S. Army, fighting first in North Africa under General Patton’s command, then on to Sicily and up through mainland Italy, ultimately earning a Bronze Star.

And those are just a few of our family stories! Given my history, it should come as no surprise that I grew up wanting to serve in the U.S. Air Force.

My goal was to be a fighter pilot and then a test pilot for NASA. I went to Space Camp and Aviation Challenge, the Air Force Academy’s Summer Scientific Seminar, and secured any related internship I could find – and was told again and again I was too small to be a fighter pilot.

Refusing to listen, I entered USAF ROTC at the University of Washington and enjoyed it for two years. When it came time to commit, I was told once more I was still too small – so I headed over to the law department.

The closest I came, one might argue, was on my 2009 USO tour throughout Iraq and Kuwait, when I was a National Football League (NFL) cheerleader with the Oakland Raiders.

Along with four other NFL cheerleaders, we spent a little over two weeks with deployed U.S. troops in that region. After we hitched a ride in a C-130 into Baghdad, I was able to meet one of the pilots on the tarmac: A woman shorter than I was! And there I was in my Raiderette uniform, and she in her pilot flight suit – apparently I was just a bit ahead of my time.

We spent most of our time at Forward Operating Bases (FOB), taking Black Hawks from one to the next (which eternally spoiled me – it’s pretty hard getting into a normal car after that).

My USO Tour, U.S. Army Sadr City FOB all-nighter, June 2009

My USO Tour, U.S. Army Sadr City FOB all-nighter, June 2009

It blew me away how isolated these soldiers were –and how young they were. And I was humbled and impacted by the reasons they shared for their signing up, which included family hardship and desperation.

The primary reason for our being there was to boost morale and show them how America cared – to give these brave soldiers a bit of home, a bit of normalcy, in their chaotic world.

We spent hours with them at all these different FOBs.

One night, at the U.S. Army FOB in Sadr City, the Black Hawk scheduled to pick us up was diverted for a Med-Evac. So we spent most of the night at the concrete building that served as their urban FOB, and we all stayed up together, talking and playing games in the inner courtyard, laughing. It was one of my favorite nights on the trip -- and ever.

The Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Tim Karcher, told us he had three daughters at home, so he wasn’t going to sleep either until he knew we were safely and soundly out of there. It was like family that night.

Later that same month, after we left Iraq, those men drove over an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). Lt. Col. Karcher lost his legs, and Sgt. Timothy David lost his life. It was 28-year old Sgt. David’s fourth tour of duty in Iraq and sixth tour of duty total. He was younger than I was.

Returning to my family history for a moment: The reason I know all of these stories is that my mom is a genealogist. But as she says, she’s a family storyteller. And she describes that across all her decades of research and interviews, the war story is the same: These are not numbers. Every life is unique, every loss grieved.

Families and loved ones never recover from the loss of their loved ones. It is those left behind that still feel the anguish, while the fallen rest in peace.­

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Their memories, their legacy, and their honor live on through knowing and sharing their stories. That’s why my mom ensured we know them – and why I’ve shared a few with you today.

In memoriam for all who have made the ultimate sacrifice. They are never forgotten.

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