For Veterans Day, Some Former Military Officers Reflect on Lessons From Their Parents

My mom is from Euclid, Ohio. Her parents were blue-collar workers who immigrated from Slovenia. Instead of marrying a Slovenian guy from the neighborhood, she met my dad. He was a doctor in the hospital where she worked as an X-ray technician, and he dragged her to Boston. But my mom, like my dad, has confidence in going with where the wind blows. She learned to play tennis, got us involved in swimming, took advantage of the mountains and camping. She became a lifeguard at Babson College in order to get us a membership to the pool. We’d go over there and she’d be folding towels.

When I was 17, it was the morning of the Boston Marathon, and I was mowing the lawn, frumping around, feeling sorry for myself. I was getting ready to go to the Naval Academy, which was not my first choice, and thinking, man, I’ll never get to run this race because who knows if I’ll ever come home again.

Finally my mom said, “I don’t want to hear you complaining any more. Get in the station wagon.” Then she drove me to the starting line. “Here’s a quarter. If you can’t finish, call.”

At the halfway point, I saw her on a bridge and ran over and said, “I think I’m done.” I didn’t have running shoes and was running in high-tops, so it’d been tough. But then this guy ran over and asked my mom, who had a jar of Gatorade, if he could have some. My mom was like, sure. Then the guy said to me, “C’mon, you can finish this.” My mom said, “Yeah, go for it.” And I was like, “OK, but I can’t run in these stupid shoes anymore.” So I took them off, gave them to my mom and ran the second half with the guy barefoot.

The first time I applied to become an astronaut, I got rejected. But some friends in the class ahead at test pilot school were selected and they wrote telling me to apply again. “Suni, this is right up your alley. It’s so much fun.” They recommended I get a master’s degree. So while I did my sea tour, I went to night school. It was hard. I had to drive three hours to take classes, and I wasn’t sure if there’d be any benefit. But I’d seen my parents do stuff that wasn’t the most flattering or fun, because potentially it could lead to something else. So I thought, even if this sucks, just do it.

I came to the astronaut office in 1998. There were a lot of us, so who knew when you would get a flight assignment. Then in 2003, the Columbia accident happened, and it was like, “Wow, will any of us ever fly? Should I quit?” So I had a little talk with myself. “Hey Suni, you have the opportunity to get physically fit; you have the opportunity to go to Russia and learn Russian, and meet people from an entirely different space agency. Even if you never fly, you’re one of the luckiest people in the whole wide world.”

Life gives you what it gives you. Make the most of it.

And that’s how my parents were. They made the best of any situation. They looked at the big picture, then picked up the pieces and handled them with grace, whatever they were.

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