I am not a military family member. I am not a service member. But I love military families and veterans. I love serving them, I love thanking them for their service. I think our country, our military and their families are the best in the world.
When I attended Navy Fleet Week in San Francisco early this month I was in charge of a Military.com tent on the San Francisco Bay where we invited some sailors to watch the Blue Angels do their amazing air show. Bonus: Sailors in their service dress blues. (You know I'm right).
But the day wasn't all scenery and good feelings for me. While watching the Leapfrogs parachute through the clouds with the flag waving beneath them and colored smoke making designs in the sky, I heard my phone chime. The message was from my sister, Liz.
“The situation here (at the hospital) is very serious. Drew’s PET scan lit up; there is cancer everywhere, in the bones, etc. He is immediately on four days of steady chemo around the clock.” I stared dumfounded at my phone while my mind raced trying to make sense of the words.
Just two years ago, we lost Liz’s husband Mark to cancer. During his five year battle, he had parts of his tongue removed and through the wonder of science the surgeons reconstructed it from his arm muscle. He had lung surgery and I watched my sister learn how to remove, clean, and replace his tracheotomy tube.
In an amazing recovery, he learned to speak again and returned to the pulpit as a preacher. We thought we had witnessed a miracle. And then, the cancer returned. This time it attacked his lungs He struggled to breathe, to eat, and to walk and the strength ebbed from his body. His hearty frame shrunk down to a perilously thin scaffold. Even with an oxygen mask, he labored to breath. No longer able to preach, he retired from his beloved church, still believing that he would serve God by writing books.
And then the cancer took him. He died on October 7, 2013.
Fast forward to October 7, 2015, the anniversary of Mark’s death. Only this time his 30 year old son received the diagnosis that he has a very aggressive form of lymphoma. And now, just a few days later, this text.
Tears rolled down my face, and I thought, “I need to go home. I need to go home now.” Never have I been more thankful for my dark sunglasses. As I pulled myself together I saw one of the sailors “Ma’am, I just wanted to say thanks for inviting us to the show. We’re having a great time.” He looked at me carefully and then asked, “Ma’am is everything all right?”
Smiling weakly I said, “Just some bad news from home, a family member is very ill.”
“Oh, I’m so very sorry; you and your family will be in my thoughts,” he said and shook my hand. I thanked him and moved on, intent on rearranging my flights and getting someone to cover the remainder of my duties.
I flew home on the red-eye home and while waiting for my baggage I received this text from my co-worker:
“Ok, I don’t want to make you cry but the Chief from the Coronado who knew something was wrong, and asked me about you, wanted me to give you his cover. He said his family has been touched by cancer and given all you do for military and veterans he wanted you to have his cover as a thank you and as a symbol of how they are thinking of you right now. Here is a picture. I’m bringing it home in my suitcase and when I see you next I will bring it with me. Safe travels. You are in my prayers.”
A Chief's cover is a hugely symbolic, important part of the uniform -- it's what separates him or her at promotion from the junior enlisted sailors and signifies a new leaders role. It is one of the most valuable items. For a Chief to give away his cover symbolizes respect and honor.
And so I cried again. I cried with gratefulness for the kindness from a stranger. Our service members aren’t just superior airmen, soldiers, marines, and sailors. They are also extraordinary human beings with hearts of gold.
When I look at this cover, I think of a sailor who stands in solidarity with my family against the ugliness that is cancer, supporting us with thoughts and prayers.
I’m so grateful, and “thank-you” just isn’t enough.
Rachael Hubbard is the Outreach Manager at Military.com. She is a devoted patriot intent on serving veterans, active service members, and their families. She lives in the Washington DC area with her husband, her daughter, and her two trained therapy dogs.