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Sharing Mana‘o

A veteran is someone who, at one point in their life, wrote a blank check made payable to the United States of America for an amount up to and including their life.

— Author unknown

In her closing remarks at Monday’s ceremony at the Maui Veterans Cemetery in Makawao, Na Koa Kahiko Wahine President Chelsea Ann Fernandez invoked the quote above while answering the question, “What makes a person a veteran?” She concluded, “If you raised your right hand and took the oath (of enlistment), then yes, you are a veteran.”

That simple, seemingly obvious statement gave me pause and, days later, I’m still mulling over it. You see, my father was, technically, a Korean War veteran, having served in the U.S. Navy from 1952 to 1956. Yet, because he never saw combat and, in fact, spent his entire hitch in San Diego, I hadn’t thought of him as a “real” vet. I kind of think he felt the same, though he never said so.

As a child, I never tired of looking through family scrapbooks and begging my parents to retell the stories that went with each black-and-white photo. Pictures of Daddy in his sailor whites always led to Mom explaining: “He wanted to enlist in the Air Force, but there was a long line at the recruitment office. Your father hates waiting in line, so he left and went around the corner to the Navy office.”

Prone to seasickness, my dad hadn’t considered the Navy as a viable option. But impatience overruled his reluctance and, as he often said, it turned out to be one of the best decisions of his life.

He was never deployed overseas because, as my mother recalled (Daddy was too humble to say so), he was a huge asset to the Navy wrestling team. Actually, he was an asset precisely because he was far from huge, the only one small enough to compete in the 114-pound class.

As a dental technician stationed in San Diego, he was able to complete his pre-dental courses at a local college and, upon discharge, his captain helped him gain admission to the University of Illinois School of Dentistry, even without a bachelor’s degree.

Many years later, when the Korean War Veterans Association Maui No Ka Oi Chapter 282 was formed, Daddy was invited but declined to join. Mom always said it was because he just wasn’t the type to join clubs, but I suspect he felt unqualified because, unlike several of his close friends like Uncle George Matsunaga and Uncle Abel Cravalho, he never set foot on Korean soil.

Now, as an honorary member of Chapter 282, I have served as emcee for the past several Veterans Day ceremonies. Each year, the same thoughts have run through my mind as I listen to the speeches and witness the floral presentations: gratitude and respect for the men and women who have served in our armed forces. This year’s program was especially heartwarming, with the long overdue presentation of the Purple Heart to the family of Captain Lawrence “Larry” Oliveira, as reporter Melissa Tanji described so beautifully in Tuesday’s Maui News.

On Veterans Day 2020, I will include my father in my silent prayers of thanks. He did, after all, solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. When he wrote that blank check, he had no idea that he’d be getting the far better deal.

My father’s fellow signatories, many less fortunate, who served during the Korean War are commemorated in the current exhibit at the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center. Now through Dec. 27, The KWVA Maui chapter, with support from the Maui Korean Community Association and in partnership with the NVMC, presents “The Forgotten War Revisited.” Museum hours are from noon to 4pm, Monday through Friday, and admission is free. Donations are, of course, gratefully accepted.

* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is kcmaui913@gmail.com.