As far back as my father can remember, the men on his side of the family have done their part for our country. In the 1850s, William White Hobart made his way west from Michigan, settling in California, where he soon found himself deputized and struggling to maintain some semblance of order in a Butte County town not unlike the sort glamorized a thousand times over in big-screen westerns. He later became a state senator in Nevada.
Skipping ahead three generations, my grandfather and namesake wound up in the Marines, missing World War I by just a month. An uncle served in the Navy at the tail end of World War II, and another was a doctor in the Air Force during the Korean conflict. My father chose the Army, serving his 22 months in Germany shortly after Korea. He returned with a raging cigarette habit and a Grundig tube radio that now sits on a shelf in my office.
These were the years of mandatory conscription, and by sheer luck, no one on my dad’s side did any fighting. In fact, you have to go as far back as the Civil War to find anyone in my family with actual battlefield experience: An ancestor on my mother’s side, Augustus Hoke, saw his first—and last—action as a captain in the 2nd South Carolina Regiment. During the First Battle of Bull Run (known as First Manassas south of the Mason-Dixon Line), he had his thumb blown off. After my maternal grandfather died, I received Capt. Hoke’s gold-plated toothpick and the monogrammed, silver case he used to carry his soap. Apparently, this Confederate soldier didn’t have it all that bad.
As someone who never served but, as a child, was immersed in media coverage of the Vietnam War’s harrowing final stages, I find myself drawn to both fictional and fact-based accounts of conflict. Strategies and policy are always part of the allure, but I’m especially fond of books that delve unflinchingly into the human side, with its gut-wrenching unpredictability and mind-boggling hardships.
No doubt, the local veterans captured by award-winning photographer David Sacks in “Soldiering On” have endured their share of adversity. But what’s so striking about this collection of portraits is the humanity that shows through—a compelling reminder that veterans aren’t solely defined by the sacrifices they’ve made for their country.
This Nov. 12, as we honor the souls of the fallen, let’s not forget the often vibrant lives of those soldiers still among us.