At Memorial Day, family stories are worth telling


(Editor’s note: Ed Kee is Delaware’s Secretary of Agriculture.)

(May 31, 2016) Often the best attributes of the American character are seen on our farms and in our farm families.
A strong work ethic, a sense of mission, a drive for accomplishment, faith and patriotism are found throughout our society, but have a special place in American agriculture.
Memorial Day is a time to reflect — a day of remembrance for those who died in the service of our country.
Delmarva farm families, like those of our farm and city cousins across the country, have stories of loss and tragedy, as well as those of pride and thanksgiving associated with our nation’s conflicts. My family is no different.
My mother became a 23-year-old widow with a four-month-old baby boy when her husband was killed fighting Germans in the hedgerow country of Normandy in August, 1944.
Devastated, she and her son lived with her parents and family, and moved forward as best as she could.
Four years later, by total random chance, she ran into a man she had dated once, well before World War II began.
He had served in the Merchant Marine as an officer, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean numerous times, battling weather and the threat of the Nazis’ submarines and air attacks.
Only the U.S. Marine Corps had higher death and casualty rates than the U.S. merchant seamen of the Second World War.
To her surprise, he called the next day.
The relationship grew to love, they married and he adopted her son.
That man would be my father.
He and Mom later had twin daughters for a nice family of four children.
Her son, technically my half-brother, became my big brother in the best sense of the word.
Fast-forward to July 3, 1969.
That day my father, mother and I took my brother to the Philadelphia airport as he was off to serve in Vietnam as a Navy corpsman, or a medic, connected to a Marine division.
I was only 17, but I knew it was a gut-wrenching moment for both my parents — especially for my Mom, who had to be thinking about another wartime loss, 25 years before.
My brother saw six months of rough front-line duty, patching up wounded, watching some die in his arms.
He also worked for the last six months in a hospital in Da Nang.
While administering morphine to his wounded, he tried it himself, and soon graduated to heroin.
In 1970, he shipped home to San Diego, was honorably discharged and chose to stay in San Diego.
He was a full-fledged heroin addict who became a street-person, using and dealing as he could.
He ended up doing three different stints in the Chino state prison, one of the toughest places in any correctional system in the country.
During his last term in prison, he realized that if he didn’t change, he’d die.
Thoughts of his family — that is, us — prompted him to move in a different direction.
With counseling and what would be a 35-year commitment to attending either Alcohol Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings two or three times a week, he kicked the heroin habit.
He went to law school, passed the California bar exam, received a special dispensation to practice law because he was a conflicted felon, and devoted his practice to people who went through what he did.
He married, had a son and developed a productive career.
In 1999, he was diagnosed with hepatitis C, a remnant from his needle use in the 1970s, and he died in 2004, at the age of 59.
Our family acknowledges the tragic part of it all, but more importantly we celebrate his comeback and his dedication to do something special for people.
As a family, we are proud and genuinely moved by the story of the father who never knew his son and his son who persevered through so much.
He persevered, in part, because of the family that formed around him after World War II.
I share this not because my family’s story is any different or more important than thousands of similar stories.
It is not. I share it in the spirit of encouraging all families to tell the next generation of their family what went before them.
It’s important for them to know.
My children have heard and grandchildren will hear our story.
Our farm families have served their parts as well, and should join in this storytelling tradition, celebrating the lives of those who came before while educating those who will lead in the future.
Perhaps that is the best way to fulfill the purpose of Memorial Day:
honoring those who lost their lives in the service of their country as well as honoring all served by telling their story to the next generations.