October 22, 2010
By Jacey Eckhart
Melissa said that K9 and Jan and Christine put together a spread sheet to figure out how to get all the Wisconsin relatives to and from the airport, back and forth from the funeral home, the viewing, the church, the burial at Quantico. When 17 year-old Forrest Peterson died in a car crash, an entire cadre of Peterson friends—so many military friends—poured in to help. The way we do.
And the Wisconsin relatives couldn’t understand who any of us were. They kept asking puzzled questions, thinking puzzled thoughts:Jeff and Melissa had only moved to Virginia a year ago, right?
Colonel K9 works for Jeff, so that’s why he is here, right?
Sure, you lived by Jacey and Brad and the kids for a couple of years, but that’s when the boys were four years old, right? That was what? Eleven houses ago?
How can a thousand people know you well enough to stand in line for hours to console you after only a year?
How can high school kids care enough to be so broken up about a Marine kid who moved in as a Junior?
How come the streets from the funeral home to the burial were lined with people getting out of their cars to salute? For a kid? For some new kid?
If you knew Forrest Peterson, if you know Jeff and Melissa, if you know siblings Brett and Merritt, then I don’t really have to explain. Awesome kid (who could really be obnoxious about the Tacquitos and Ranch dressing). Devoted parents. Hilarious siblings.
The Wisconsin relatives knew all that. They knew that the clan was chock full of nice people. They just couldn’t understand the rest of us knowing that already.
I can hardly blame them. Like so many other extended family members of the military, these civilians lived in the same Wisconsin communities for many years if not all their lives. They saw the same people at church and the store. They sat next to the same people at hockey practice year after year. They understood how a family, how a community, would come forward for one of their own. In Wisconsin, a family is known. How could it be possible for a military family like the Petersons who move and move and move have this kind of community?
I wish the relatives had asked me. I would have told them that it is simple, really.
We are their Wisconsin. We military folks become Wisconsin to each other. I don’t really know how exactly this happens. I just know I love Forrest and Merritt and Brett as if they are my blood. I’m closer to Jeff and Melissa than to some of my own siblings. I may have only met Christine and Jan and K9 at the hospital, but I immediately recognized in them my friends, my neighbors, my home. People around Quantico got out of their cars because they knew they had just lost one of their own—even if they never knew Forrest.
The rest of the world thinks that we military people share only scraps of each other’s lives. And in a way they are right. We’re there for the pregnancy, but not the birth. We know each other during soccer season, but we move before wrestling starts. We send pictures of kids clustered around the steps in our Christmas cards. Homecoming dance photos are posted on Facebook. We run into each other by chance on Bourbon Street, at Smithsonian metro stop, in the commissary at Ft. Riley or Camp Pendleton or Sasebo.
And somehow, this really does add up to something big. As big as Wisconsin. During our military lives, other military families become something more than friends, something somewhere beyond family. We don’t have a name for what this means. I only know that when Forrest died, when I saw all those good people come together around the Petersons, that we were all part of something so much bigger than ourselves. And that has made such a difference.Jacey Eckhart is a military life consultant in Washington, DC. She is the author of "The Homefront Club" and the voice behind the award-winning CD "These Boots." Facebook Jacey or contact her at email@example.com.