For years before my father died in 1997, I looked forward to talking with him every Veterans Day.
Whether it was by phone or in person, I thanked him for his military service to our country during one of the darkest periods in the history of the world.
Jesse M. Flores, a World War II combat veteran who served with the 5th Army for 3 1/2 years, had the same response each year.
"You're welcome, son," he would say. "We just did what we had to do."
Those moments took on greater poignancy with the passage of time. The knot in my throat seemed to grow bigger each year when we talked on that special day in November.
"Dad, all you guys did was save the world. That's all," I would reply, my voice cracking with emotion. "I just want you to know how proud I am of you."
Fifteen years after his death at age 78, I cherish the memories of those Veterans Day conversations with my father. For as long as I can remember, he was always my hero and the one man I wanted to be like.
My sisters, brother and I take pride in knowing our father did his part to help bring down Hitler's killing machine more than six decades ago.
Jesse Flores was the quintessential citizen-soldier of an American generation that has been lauded as the greatest in our country's history. He served in the Army from March 1942 until his discharge as a corporal, at age 26, in September 1945.
He spent three years in combat, serving as a gunner on a half-track vehicle in Battery D of the 432nd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion.
Army opened a new world for my father
Born in the small town of Dodge, which is about 10 miles east of Huntsville, Jesse Flores was working as a handyman in Corpus Christi when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Less than three months later, he was drafted and went through basic training at Fort Sam Houston.
Before going overseas, his unit had anti-aircraft and artillery training at Camp Hulen in Palacios.
His life never would be the same.
Like most Mexican-Americans of his day, Jesse Flores had very little education. In fact, he only got to the third grade. But the Army opened a new world for him. A self-taught man who was fluent in English and Spanish, he read the newspaper every day and kept up with current events.
Even as World War II receded into history, my father was haunted by the suffering he saw “over there,” as he called it. “We left a lot of good boys over there,” he would say.
My father’s unit shipped out to Greenock, Scotland, from Fort Dix, N.J., in the summer of 1942, starting a journey that would initiate them to war in Tunisia, North Africa, and wind through a series of campaigns in Italy before Germany surrendered in May 1945.
Jesse Flores settled in Corpus Christi after the war and went about the business of adjusting to civilian life. It wasn't easy. Although he had fought for the country he loved, he quickly learned that "Mexicans" still faced the indignity of ethnic discrimination in virtually every aspect of their lives.
Undaunted, my father held fast to his faith that things would get better someday. He attended carpenter's school on the GI Bill and married my mother on May 19, 1946. They had four children: two daughters and two sons.
Dad's homecoming was emotional
As I reflect on those early years at home, I marvel at what I learned from my parents at our dinner table each night. They brought history to life as they recalled what it was like to come of age during the Depression and World War II. I also knew about President Franklin D. Roosevelt long before I read about him in a history book at school.
It was fascinating to hear my father recall how he felt when he heard the news of Roosevelt's death in April 1945, just weeks before Germany's surrender.
One of the more poignant stories my dad recounted occasionally was about his emotional homecoming in Corpus Christi, when he saw his mother for the first time since he had marched off to war. He recalled how they cried as they hugged each other. Then they went to Sacred Heart Catholic Church to give thanks.
Whenever I heard that story, it was like imagining a scene from a movie. But that was my father and grandmother, not a movie. I also thought about how that scene was repeated hundreds of thousands of times throughout the country after the war, and my heart ached for those mothers whose sons didn’t make it home.
My father never forgot the men with whom he served, speaking of them fondly long after they had gone their separate ways. Listening to him tell stories about the men in his battery was like hearing someone talk about his brothers.
He attended a few reunions through the years and corresponded with some of his closest buddies. I went to one of his battery's last reunions – in Bartlesville, Okla., in 2001 – and met some of the men my father had told me about for so many years. I felt as though I knew them already.
Born in the greatest country in the world
Three days before he died of a heart attack at my home, my father recalled his Army brothers one last time. The memories of what he said that afternoon remain vivid, crystallized by time.
"If I had to go through a war again, I would want to go through it with the same guys," he said. "They were like my family."
One of the toughest things I had to do after my father died was call his Army buddies. One of them asked me to call him back because he needed time to compose himself. It was moving to know how much these men still cared about my father.
Oh, the memories.
Each night before my younger brother and I fell asleep when we were kids, my father would come into our room and ask a question that never changed.
"Have you thanked God for having been born in the greatest country in the world?" he would ask.
Those words still echo in my heart.
Thank you for your service, Dad. And rest easy, soldier.
Happy Veterans Day.