All I Could Be

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Lynda O'Connor
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Van Meter, Iowa: It’s just that simple

Last week I drove out to Van Meter, Iowa, where I’m scheduled to deliver my first Veterans Day speech of the year: Friday, November 8th at 0930 hours.  It’ll be in the school’s gym—a K-12 facility that is both the pride and center of the community … the kind of community that when I stopped at the Casey’s General Store to ask for directions I got, “follow the road into town, around the bend, you’ll see it on the right.”  It’s just that simple.

Van Meter, population just over 1,000, is only about a 20-minute drive west from where I commune with 200,000 others living in and around the state’s capitol.  Now it seems trite to say driving to Van Meter was like a going “back in time” or to “another world” and inaccurate as well, for the community didn’t feel “behind the times” or strange at all.  It was more like a smaller version of everything good and right in the Heartland.

Now I don’t want to idealize, but it’s only fair to brag a bit about this small Iowa town where one morning I stopped, breathed and just let things be.  It’s an easy place, and quiet, and it reminded me of why I’m proud to be an Iowan and an American, living at the core of our country.

Now they say nothing is more American than baseball and apple pie.  I didn’t find any dessert (there’s always next Friday) but I did pass the Bob Feller Museum.  For those of you that don’t know, I was admittedly one of them, Bob Feller made his major league baseball debut in 1936 at the age of 17.  Fans and players recall “Rapid Robert” as having a helluva fastball and TIME magazine agreed, putting him on one of its covers that following spring.  NBC Radio covered Feller’s graduation from Van Meter High School in 1937 and in 1962 he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  His 18 loyal seasons with the Cleveland Indians was interrupted only by his Navy service during WWII.  Feller was the sole provider for his family, but was so compelled to join the war he waved his draft deferment, becoming the first major league player to join the service.  Feller died three Decembers ago at the age of 92.

Van Meter is also home to the Iowa Veterans Cemetery.  About 100,000 veterans live within about an hour’s drive of the location, where groundbreaking took place in 2006.  Funds for the state-run burial grounds came from the State Cemetery Grants Program, established in 1978, by the US Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration whose history dates back to 1862.  It was during the Civil War that Congress recognized the need for designated resting places for soldiers that died serving their country.  If you’ve ever been to Arlington you’ve had the privilege of experiencing our nation’s grandest gesture of gratitude for its heroes.  And the Iowa Veterans Cemetery, well, it’s simply our version—smaller geography, same gratitude and honor.

A school staff member greeted me at the door when I arrived and walked me to the office to check in.  My “tour guide,” special education teacher Colleen Tendall, showed me the gym and how it would be set up—marching band in this corner, students over here and veterans bused from the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown in front of the bleachers here.

“People from town will show up too,” Tendall said.  “Everything happens here.  We’re one of those schools that still says the Pledge of Allegiance every morning.”  I like those schools, I thought to myself.

We visited the student coffee shop, peeked into the cafeteria and cruised down the halls decorated with dozens of construction paper spiders and autumn leaves.  I could hear tiny voices burst from tiny tots in the kindergarten room as their hands waved excitedly ‘pick me, pick me.’

It’ll be the first year in the school Veteran’s Day assembly tradition that a woman will speak.  What will I tell such a diverse audience in such short time?  I took one last glimpse into the gym on my way out, imagining the faces and their reactions to my attempt over the sound system to inform, inspire and entertain.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, teachers, parents, fellow veterans … (readers):

When I was 18 years old, and coincidentally knew everything, I couldn’t wait to get the heck out of Iowa.  It was small and simple and there was never anything to do.  I saw a commercial on television, two men riding on a tank, the “Be All That You Can Be” Army motto flashed across the screen and I thought, “Yes!  I wanna do that!”  Three weeks later, I landed in the red dirt of Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for basic training.  While I was doing pushups and sweating and marching and picking cockleburs out of my socks and firing an M60 machine gun and shining my boots and screaming “Drill Sergeant, yes, Drill Sergeant” my senior class was adjusting pushup bras and sweating and dirty dancing in fashion heels and popping blisters and throwing glitter and screaming “We don’t need no education” while firing off bottle rockets in the parking lot.  Essentially we all had basically the same senior torture—mine just lasted longer, I got to wear more comfortable shoes and I was hanging out with all the hot guys. <<fast forward>>

Over the next nine years I sojourned in four states and three countries.  I met and conversed and ate meals and prayed with soldiers and citizens from all across the States and the Middle East.  And in being about 6,000 miles away from the corn fields and hog confinements, I learned a few things about Iowans that I didn’t know when I was living among them.

First, Iowans are truly some of the friendliest folks around.  Strangers to our ways often label our immediate kindness as weakness.  But I see our gift of hospitality as strength.  We are willing to be vulnerable in order to offer help because it is the right thing to do.  It’s just that simple.

We offer good help.  The year I was deployed to Iraq, I served in an Iowa National Guard unit.  Our job during the war was to transport supplies and troops and supplement the security missions of other units.  We kept watch in towers, trained Iraqi Border Police and guarded enemy prisoners.  But back home our full time jobs included electrician, farmer, plumber, fire fighter, teacher … dozens of other jobs and skills and knowledge bases.  So when the active duty units at our forward operating base needed help repairing or implementing something for their living quarters they knew to come to “Hawkeye Company.”  That was our nickname—sorry Cyclones from the western part of the state.  I’m a Cyclone grad myself but none of that mattered there.  We were in Iraq as Americans first, then Iowans.  After that, it didn’t seem to matter.  It was just that simple.

In Van Meter, 2013, I’m not that far from where I started my adult life and military career 18 years ago.  Things look different to me now that I realize I have a lot to learn.  Iowa, from its small town to its larger cities, has enough art and culture and entertainment for a lifetime.  Ten years ago when I deployed to Iraq, Iowa was the one place I couldn’t wait to get back to.  So many of the people in its communities still believe in and live by the values I came to understand in the Army: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage.  It’s an amazing place to live.  It’s just that simple.

Now a brief morning time speech that ties that reflection together for a diverse audience: not that simple.  So if you want to see how it’s done, you’ll have to plop yourself down in the bleachers among the crowd on Friday November 8th.  The full speech will appear as a blog after the event.  Here’s your teaser:  There will be a test, after all it’s mostly school kids.  There will be four questions.  Three answers will be ideals that begin with “to be.”  And because it wouldn’t be fun without a visual aid, expect a stuffed, striped bumblebee to be a part of it all.  It’s a great day to “bee” an Iowan!  Happy Veterans Day!

Sources:

https://va.iowa.gov/vetcemetery/

www.bobfellermuseum.org

www.navalhistory.org

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All I Could Be: My Story as a Woman Warrior in Iraq is a compelling tribute to women who serve. More than a wartime romance, it honors love of country and the unique contributions women bring to the battlefield. It deserves to be read alongside the classics in military history. Debra Engle, author of Grace from the Garden: Changing the World One Garden at a Time and president of GoldenTree Communications
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