By Air Force Master Sgt. Cheresa D. Theiral, Colorado National Guard Public Affairs
/ Published December 27, 2011
CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- Many families carry a legacy of military service. Mine doesn't. The last of six kids, I was the only one who joined the military.
Shaped by our upbringing, we're all patriots, each in his or her own, unique way. We rarely agree with each others' political viewpoints and none of us look anything alike. In fact, I'm the only one for at least three generations with hazel eyes, which I've passed on to my son. And I'm one of only a few who truly enjoys writing.
Unlike my siblings, I've never feared snakes, mice, bugs, spiders, the dark or being alone. I was the rebel and daredevil who'd learned from my older siblings' exploits how not to get caught. And I always knew what I wanted out of life. They probably think I'm an overachiever, too, because I'm the only one with a college degree, thanks to the GI Bill.
At one time or another, each of us has joked about being the adopted child - and if it weren't for a few unattractive dominant traits that will remain anonymous, I might believe it was me.
All said, growing up, there was never anyone in my family I could really relate to. A great uncle on my mom's side served in the South Pacific during World War II and spent the rest of his career between the Navy and Air Force, but I never really knew him, as he was far removed from my grandfather, a preacher. My dad was drafted into the Army during the Berlin Crisis and later served as a Reservist well before I was born, but he didn't make a career of it.
In the mean time, I raised myself on John Wayne movies and Vietnam War novels. I knew I'd join the service to become a journalist someday, so during my senior year in high school, when Sgt. James Clemons, from my friendly, neighborhood U.S. Marine Corps recruiting office called, I figured it was fate. My parents didn't think I'd make it through boot camp, but I graduated from Parris Island in 1994 with an honorary promotion to E-2.
I was only the second woman in the 2nd Marine Division Combat Camera Unit (the Marines made me a photographer instead of a writer) and one of the first enlisted "WMs" to deploy aboard a Navy ship. While I was a groundbreaker in many ways, most had to do with circumstances, not skill or talent.
Then in the mid-1990s, I was hit by a reduction in force, so my life-long dream of life-long service went down like a sinking ship. I was devastated. I didn't have a back-up plan and felt obligated to move back to Denver. The local Reserve unit didn't have an opening for me and I was way too proud to consider joining a different branch, so I sulked for a long, long while. Then one day I joined the American Legion - the only place I could find people I could relate to - where I met this really cute guy and had a few beers. The next thing I knew, he'd recruited me into the Colorado Air National Guard. A few years later, he recruited me into his family. In January 2003, we married in relative secrecy in the 140th Wing commander's office. All told, it's been a pretty good ride so far. I'm still a lifer - just not the way I'd planned it - and to this day, I still don't have much in common with my family, most of whom prefer to live vice free.
So as the socially-inept oddball in the family, it's always been important to extract my family's heritage. Until recently, though, tracing the tree branches seemed an impossible task. With the surnames Clark, Butler and Black - and sordid, confusing histories in which fact and fiction are a tangled, gray mass - we could only go back a few generations.
Then a couple of years ago, something changed. A long-lost cousin contacted my mom. It turns out we were related to a woman whom I'd already known for a decade: Sonja Broom. Her husband, Joe, had retired from the Colorado Air National Guard years prior, and in 2009 they offered to be surrogate grandparents for my son when my husband deployed to Iraq. For several years prior to that, the three of us had been regular recipients of hand-knitted winter caps from her as part of the COANG retiree group's "Hats for Heroes" program. And all before we knew we were related.
Shortly after that discovery, another long-lost cousin contacted my mom, and we learned that we're also related to Lt. Cmdr. Paul J. Register, a communications officer and U.S. Naval Academy graduate who was killed in action aboard the USS Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941, during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
I didn't believe it. A Naval Academy graduate in our family? On the USS Arizona?! No way! Besides, I told my mom, Paul was way too handsome and educated to be of the same genes. She didn't appreciate my deduction.
On Dec. 7 of this year, I learned of Paul's two older brothers. Dill served as a machinist's mate in the Navy during World War I. Francis D. served in the North Dakota National Guard.
Francis D. had a son, Lt. j.g. Francis R. Register, aka "Cash," a Navy Reserve aviator.
Cash became North Dakota's first flying ace - and was one of the first in the Navy - for shooting down eight Japanese planes during the battle for Guadalcanal. During one dogfight, he ran out of ammunition but bluffed a Japanese pilot into retreating. He was also credited with a number of assists, which he didn't count. At the time, the Grumman F4 Wildcat pilot had been an aviator for just over a year. For his actions there, Cash was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross by Adm. Chester W. Nimitz.
Cash was later stationed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nassau (CVE 16). He went missing in action May 18, 1943, during the battle for Attu. He was posthumously awarded an Air Medal for his actions there.
Following his death, Cash's widow, Ruth, joined the Red Cross and ran several Aero Clubs in the European theater, providing comfort to the American troops fighting the war there. Christine Woods, Ruth's daughter from her second husband, is a public relations professional, and used Ruth's letters home along with her grandmother's diary to create a book that chronicles World War II from their perspectives.
And it was through those letters, diaries and old newspaper clippings that I came to know Cash.
Weeks later, I'm still stunned by these revelations, but also inspired. While I now have even more relatives I can relate to, my exploits are meager in comparison to their service and sacrifices.
And it's through more long-lost living cousins and the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System that we discovered that at least four of our shared great, great, great, great (I lost count) uncles served in the Army and Navy during the Civil War, and all for the Union. At least three of them survived, and at least one was wounded. On March 26, 2012, the Colorado National Guard will mark the 150th anniversary of its entry into the war, when the First Colorado Volunteers battled Texas Confederates at Glorieta Pass, in what is now New Mexico. The Coloradoans were victorious at what many historians have dubbed the "Gettysburg of the West," and in 1993, the Congressionally-appointed Civil War Sites Advisory Commission identified Glorieta Pass as one of the most important battles of the war. My family is currently researching the possibility - however remote - that one of my relatives fought in that battle.
All told, the journey to find the remaining branches on this limb of my family tree has almost come full circle, and with its revelations has come a renewed sense of pride - not just in my family, but in my service, and that of my brothers- and sisters-in-arms, past and present, and what they've sacrificed and endured to keep our nation free of the horrors of war for nearly 150 years.
While the tools of war and healing have evolved over the centuries, it was no less difficult for our ancestors to leave their homes and families during any other conflict as it is for us now. As our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines are still fighting in Afghanistan (the security responsibility is gradually being transitioned from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force to Afghan leadership) and we bring the last of our service members home from Iraq, we bear the palpable knowledge of our own sacrifices in the Global War on Terror that began in force on Sept. 11, 2001.
All who've served in the last decade witnessed that gutless attack on America, just as my relatives experienced the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 70 years ago. Shaped by our common experiences, we remain patriots, each in his or her own unique and deeply personal way.
And now, decades after most of their deaths, I finally feel like I have relatives I can relate to, but my question remains: Did any of them have hazel eyes?