The highway signs and the trees blurred together as my family and I sped down the highway toward the Outer Banks for our annual summer getaway. It was 2017, and I was 11 years old.
On our journey from New England to North Carolina, we drove through Dover, Delaware. My mom wanted to see the base where my granddad was stationed during the time my grandparents lived in Delaware. My mom said my granddad spent some of his time in the Air Force there, and I was excited. As we walked up to the Air Mobility Command Museum, my mom talked to my dad about how she never had heard much about my grandfather’s time in the service.
We continued inside and found a Vietnam veteran who gave us a tour of the base. I was wonderstruck when we went inside the airplane hangar and saw three massive planes—the dark paint, the big U.S. Air Force lettering, and the size. All I could think was, “What would it have been like to fly or fly in one of these planes?”
My amazement grew after we went inside the plane. The inside was surprisingly bare and only had these strange-looking, bright red seats. The guide let us sit in them and strapped us in, and I imagined being in one of these and getting ready to drop into a combat zone. That imaginary scenario for me felt terrifying. My mom had been texting with my grandma trying to get the name of the plane my granddad was on. We found out my granddad flew on a C-141 Starlifter cargo jet aircraft, and the plane was in the museum. We were able to go inside. This is when I first felt compelled to better understand military service.
In January 2021, I sat down with my granddad, Ken Marschner, and asked him questions I had never thought to ask
I asked my granddad about his experience in the military. He answered by taking me back to 1967, when he was in college. He was faced with a decision: Enter the draft or volunteer. His brother had been drafted two years before, and my granddad had to choose. He looked to his family’s history. His family had a history of serving when they were needed. So he felt he needed to rise to the occasion. He chose to volunteer—that way he would have some choice when it came to his position. After choosing to serve in the Air Force, he was assigned to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
He was surprised to be stationed in the United States—and close to home, as well. The Dover air force base was a hub for transporting soldiers, cargo, and supplies to anywhere in the world. He was assigned to an aerial port squad aerial administrative office, where he was in charge of making sure everything got done and shipped in a timely manner.
In autumn of 1968, he was stationed in Germany. A key takeaway he had during his service was the experience he gained and what he could learn. He wanted to see East Germany: He was allowed to go, and he saw how bad life was for the people on the east side. It was an eye-opening and maturing trip for him, he said. The east side of Germany was still in ruins, and reflecting on it, he realized how easy it could have been to snag him and accuse him of a crime that he did not commit to stir up problems. He counted himself lucky it did not happen to him on that day.
He was reassigned back to Dover for a different position: to be in the training division. He was in charge of organizing the training of service members and keeping everything up to speed. He did that until he got out of the service.
My grandfather’s service wasn’t what I imagined when I first thought of military service. I expected stories of battle and bombs. During a middle school lecture series at Berwick Academy, where I’m a sophomore, about the history of war and how war affects countries, civilians, and most importantly service members, I’ve realized it isn’t just fighting and death, like you see in the movies.
Throughout a week of guest speakers, a mix of naval doctors, Marines, and computer technicians, we heard stories of combat and of peace.
One stood out to me: Chris Kelbaugh.
When Chris started talking about his deployment to Iraq, I was intrigued. I found most interesting the sense of community that he mentioned multiple times. It was eventually that sense of community that ended up saving his life. He and his friend were on patrol when a truck came through the gates and did not stop. Many people shouted at it to stop, but it just kept coming. In that moment as I listened, I could feel the fear. His recounting of the situation was so intense I felt as though I was there experiencing and watching it all first hand. I felt fear, panic, and dread for what was to come. He told the story as if it had happened yesterday.
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The truck didn’t stop, and as it neared the base, it exploded. The building started to crumble. He made it to the doorway to get down the stairs, but then he blacked out. His friend was still conscious and dragged him down the stairs to safety. That was my moment of realization, the moment when I finally understood that this thing we called war was real and hurts people.
Realizing war causes pain and suffering to those brave enough to face it, I felt shock and empathy for all those in service. I felt for those suffering with post-traumatic stress and all those who had injuries because they were brave to protect others. I felt gratitude toward all of them, and I took much away from that story.
I remembered Chris’s story as I prepared to ask my grandfather about his service. This was a harder conversation to have, because it was so much more personal than asking questions of someone I did not know. It was eye-opening and maturing to hear about my granddad’s life before I became a part of it.
My grandfather is proud of the time and the things he did in the military. I am lucky I was able to ask him about his experience and learn from it. Walking away from my grandparents’ house was some of the best reflection time I’ve had as I tried to comprehend all of the stories and information I had received.
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I have realized war is not always like it is in the movies. It is much bigger than that—it involves others who aren’t in combat and who make everything happen. My best analogy is to a musical. Being an audience member, we only see the starring characters and ensemble. We don’t see the set designers, costume people, hairstylists, makeup crew, and the lighting crew. My point is there is much more that goes into the function of one thing. In the military, every part contributes to the greater picture, like the musical on opening night.
I have just scored a backstage pass to see where and how they all work together to create something larger than themselves.