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My heritage lives in me

Senior Airman Holly Mansfield, 81st Training Wing Public Affairs photojournalist, holds a photo of her father, James Cook Jr., and grandfather, U.S. Army Master Sgt. retired James Cook Sr., Nov. 9, 2017, on Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. As a third generation military member, Mansfield carries on the legacy of service started by her grandfather who joined the Army in 1956 and her father who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Holly Mansfield)

Senior Airman Holly Mansfield, 81st Training Wing Public Affairs photojournalist, holds a photo of her father, James Cook Jr., and grandfather, U.S. Army Master Sgt. retired James Cook Sr., Nov. 9, 2017, on Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. As a third generation military member, Mansfield carries on the legacy of service started by her grandfather who joined the Army in 1956 and her father who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Holly Mansfield)

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --

I'll never forget the night I first met him.

 

It was late and raining outside. We pulled up to his house in Tennessee and my dad and I walked up to the front door. When the door opened I saw a tall shadowy figure standing in front of me. He didn't say a single word. He just held out his hand and at that moment I wasn't scared anymore.

 

I was part of a new family.

 

Everyone joins the military for different reasons. Some join for education and others to travel the world. Every now and then you meet a military member who joined to carry on a family legacy sometimes spanning over several decades.

 

Whenever people ask me why I joined the military I always give them the basic answer of getting my education or getting out of my small town in Texas like most people give because I never really knew how to explain the real reason why I joined.

 

When I was three years old my mom met and married my stepfather who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. That same year my mom, brother and I traveled with my stepfather up to Tennessee to meet his side of the family for the first time.

 

I don’t remember everything about the trip because I was so young, but what I do remember is the first time I met my grandfather. I was tired because of the long trip from our home in Red Oak, Texas, and scared because I had no idea what to expect.

 

Walking up to their front porch and seeing this tall man greet me like I’ve known him for years made me feel like I was home.

 

We walked inside and sitting on the counter was a bowl of ice cream he was eating. I looked at it and without hesitation he asked me if I wanted some for myself. I said yes and then he picked me up to put me in a chair and made me a bowl of ice cream.

 

I remember him and my dad talking about being in the military but I didn’t really understand what they were talking about until a few years later when we went up to Tennessee again to visit my grandparents.

 

Walking upstairs in their house you can smell the sweet smell of Hershey chocolate bars and see dirty work boots on the ground and Army awards, medals and patches lining the walls. Looking through all of his military items on the walls there were three things that stuck out to me the most: a big yellow patch with a black line and a horse head on it, a black hat with a yellow rope around it and a shiny medal in the shape of a star with two bronze leaves and a letter “V” on the ribbon.

 

Being the completely clueless kid that I was, I asked my grandfather “What are these things and why are they on the wall?”

 

My grandfather looked at me, gave me the smirk he gave all the kids when they asked goofy questions and then went on to tell me how he received each of the items I asked about.

 

Finding out that my grandfather served in the 1st Calvary Airmobile, the 1st Infantry Division and then hearing his stories about how he was awarded three Bronze Stars, including one with Valor, and how he fought in the Battle of la Drang Valley blew my mind . . . mostly because I had no idea what any of it meant, but it sure did sound really important.

 

He went on to tell me that serving in the military was really important to him and how proud he was when my dad joined the Air Force, my uncle joined the Army and my other uncle joined the Navy.

 

Hearing these things about a side of my family who really took my mom, brother and myself in and treated us as though we were their own made me feel special. I don’t know just how much time I spent upstairs in that room but it was like walking through a museum. Each item on the wall had its own story. Each story just so happened to be about my grandfather.

 

Just a few years later in 2001, my stepfather talked to my brother and I about legally adopting us. I was honestly confused because he told us that he would become our dad. In my mind, he was always my dad because I never knew my biological father.

 

There was never anyone and never will be anyone who can fill that spot in mine or my brother’s lives.

 

In the summer of 2002, the adoption process was complete and my last name changed from Evans to Cook. I was so happy that my brother and I now had the last name of someone who truly loved us.

 

As the years passed, I realized I was the child who was creative and liked to play music, but didn’t excel academically. I was the odd ball.  

After graduating from high school, I finished two and a half years of college and realized going to school just wasn’t for me.

 

After thinking about it, I remembered how my grandfather talked about being proud of my dad and uncles for joining the military. Since I was never really that good at academics and my parents had to constantly stay on me for doing well in classes, I never really thought they were as proud of me as they were of my brother.

 

I wanted to do something that would make them proud--especially my dad.

 

One day on my way into work I typed out a text message to my dad saying “I want to join the Air Force.”

 

I knew he would probably freak out so I waited to send the text until right after I clocked into work. Within seconds I felt my phone in my pocket buzzing like crazy. I wasn’t going to answer the call but my store director looked at me and said, “Are you just going to ignore it? Answer the phone.”

 

After a short conversation with my dad I worked my shift and braced myself for the conversation with my mom. When I got home that night she had five million questions and just as many tears. I told her I was joining the military to be in the Air Force band to make her feel better. . . which was a complete lie but oh well . . . sorry mom!

 

Since joining the military in 2011 I’ve spent most of my time in Germany or other parts of the U.S. so I haven’t been able to spend as much time with my family as I used to. Unfortunately, one of things that really brings a family together is tragedy.

 

On Oct. 12, 2017, I was sitting at work and started receiving phone calls from my mom. I didn’t answer at first because I was busy, but the phone calls became so rapid that I realized something must be wrong.

 

I called my mom and all I could hear was crying. She began to tell me that my grandfather was admitted into a hospital in Tennessee and was close to passing away.

 

I told my supervisor and within three hours I had my leave form signed and was on my way home to start packing to go to Nashville.

 

Walking into the hospital I had no idea what to expect. Seeing my grandfather laying in a hospital bed, not being able to speak and using a ventilator to breathe is one of the hardest things I’ve ever seen.

 

I was back in Tennessee but I wasn’t the three year old kid anymore. I was a grown adult surrounded by crying family members and I had no idea what to do with myself.

 

Oct. 16 at 10:16 a.m. the man who first introduced me to the military and that was one of my driving forces for joining the Air Force passed away.

 

Sitting at my grandparent’s house and going through their old photos, I saw several of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, my dad and cousins but some of the best were photos of my grandfather from when he was in the Army.

 

Although I may not be blood related to my dad’s side of the family, they always have been and always will be mine and the line of military members we have is part of my heritage.

 

Over my last six and a half years in the Air Force I’ve gotten to do so many awesome things and meet so many amazing people, but none of that can compare to the feeling of knowing I’m part of something great in my family. I’ve never felt like I really lived up to my family’s expectations or given anything back to my dad for all the things he’s done for me, but I believe joining the military puts me one step closer to feeling like I’ve made them proud that I’m helping carry on the military legacy my grandfather created for our family.