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When Death Hits a Family Tradition of Service

Some families serve more than others. Some families give more than others. Few families are asked to pay the ultimate price. If they must, they do.

When Major General Harold J. Greene was shot to death this week in Afghanistan by a gunman dressed as an Afghan soldier, the world paid attention.

Maybe they only paid attention because it was a terrorist attack in the middle of a workday. Maybe they paid attention because it was a reminder that there is still a war going on. Maybe they only paid attention because Greene was the highest ranked American officer to be killed in overseas combat since the Vietnam War.

But as the story emerged, more and more reporters noted with some surprise that Greene, who served for 34 years in uniform, came from a distinctly 'military' family.

His wife Sue Myers is a retired Army colonel. The two met while he was stationed in Turkey and she was stationed in Germany. Greene and Myers were married more than 25 years -- no easy feat for dual military couples.

Their son Matthew is a West Point grad currently stationed at Ft. Sill. Their daughter Amelia, like so many Army brats in the world, PCSed with her family until she left for college and then graduated.

Greene’s father and grandfather were both veterans of World War II. The first known member of their family to serve in the military was in the Union Army during the Civil War. Reporters noted  that military service was ‘a family tradition.’ Or that it ‘ran in the family.’

When deaths like this occur, we as a nation suddenly look around and see how many of the one percent are related to other members of the one percent. Like we are surprised.

Researchers have long noted that the children of current and former military members are more likely to serve in the military themselves. Once enlisted these folks are more likely than other enlistees to serve for more than 20 years.

Proximity alone accounts for some of the likelihood to serve. If you live within 50 miles of a military base, you are more likely to enlist.

Yet the researchers can’t account for the family values that express to children that military service is a worthy way to begin your adulthood. They don’t account for people like Greene who are brilliant enough to earn five post graduate degrees and spend them working on gear to protect soldiers. They don’t account for the thousands of conversations between a couple wondering when to get out and how long to stay in.

Instead the country is continually surprised by the five Sullivan brothers who served together and died together on the USS Juneau in World War II.

They are stunned that the Wise family of Arkansas who lost both Jeremy and Ben in Afghanistan while Beau continued to serve. Or the Hubbard family of California who lost both Nathan and Jared in Iraq while Jason continued to serve.

They probably don’t even realize that both sons and the daughter of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey have all served overseas in the War On Terror. And that Lt. Gen. Kelly lost his own son Robert, a Marine, in Afghanistan.

Sometimes I think the world must look at military families as if we buy into that saying of ancient Rome Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Instead we military families are probably among the last to think that' it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.'  None of us intend to die. None of us intend to see our parents and children die.  That is not the point of military service.

Instead, I think what we pass to each other is that it is sweet and fitting to serve one’s country. To commit to something bigger than yourself. To accept the risks that are part of every stage in a military career.

"He loved his family, and he loved his friends, and he loved what he did," Major General Greene’s son told the Wall Street Journal. "There isn't an amount of words that I can use to describe him, it just wouldn't be enough, it wouldn't do him justice.”

My heart goes out to the Greene family this week as they go through the process of burying their beloved husband, father, son. And my heart stays with them as they live with his remarkable legacy.

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