As we prepare to celebrate Veterans Day on Monday, the Tribune sat down and talked with two local women who had very different military experiences, but who both devoted a part of their life to help protect and serve their country.
From fighter jets to marriage
Courtney Thurber remembers watching “Top Gun” as a kid, and the excitement that pulsed through her as the F-14 Tomcats thundered through the sky.
When she graduated from high school, Thurber knew college wasn’t the right path for her. Her dad was a Marine and her uncle was in the Army, but she followed a different path, enlisting in the Navy. Why the Navy?
“Honestly, it was the F-14 Tomcat,” she said.
But in order to fly an F-14, pilots had to go through a stringent educational process, so Thurber decided instead to learn to maintain the jets.
Her four years in the Navy led her from her childhood home near Philadelphia to boot camp outside Chicago; A-School in Millington, Tennessee; and Virginia Beach, Virginia, where she served in the VF-101 and the FV-41.
It also took her into combat aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt.
“I left in February 1999 and went and fought over in Kosovo and Iraq,” she said.
The Navy is also where she met her husband, Mike. While she left the Navy after a four-year stint to focus on their family, Mike remained in the Navy for 22 years before retiring.
“It’s actually pretty common,” Thurber said of meeting and marrying while in the military. “We’ve had quite a few friends of ours who both stayed in and raised their kids. I wanted to give our kids a more stable lifestyle.”
Mike’s family was from West Michigan, so after retiring from the Navy, they moved to Grand Haven.
Thurber spent several years working on civilian airliners after leaving the Navy. She then went to school and studied microbiology, and worked at a drug discovery lab.
Now 42, Thurber said she's “trying to find a new thing to do when I grow up."
Thurber currently serves on the Honor Guard and on the House Committee at the Charles A. Conklin American Legion Post in Grand Haven. The American Legion is a huge blessing for veterans, she said, as it provides a place to talk with others who have shared similar life experiences.
“It’s not just swapping war stories the whole time,” she said. “In a weird way, we all understand each other, even the spouses. … I love going to the Legion because my husband and I are huge history buffs, and we’ll talk to anybody about what they faced and what they did long before our time. Even the new kids coming in, we get a chance to talk to them, what’s life like for them — and if they need any help, we’re here for them.”
Thurber said life in the military creates a unique bond that can’t be easily explained.
“It is different because the military has had to grow and adapt to different generations, and we’re all curious about each other,” she said. “We did this back in my day — is that still going on today?”
Thurber said their Veterans Day celebration tends to elicit a wide range of emotions.
“Both my husband and I come from a long line of family members who served,” she said. “It was our chance to give back to our country, and it’s our honor and pride being a part of that group. Memorial Day we set aside for fallen veterans, but also on Veterans Day, we always remember our friends who didn’t make it back.”
Single mom answers the call
Julie Johnson didn’t follow the traditional path into the military.
Instead, she enlisted in 1992 at the age of 35, a single mom with three young girls at home.
“My family will probably tell you it was a mid-life crisis,” she joked. “But I had always wanted to join the military, even when I was a student in nurse's training. The opportunity came up and I grabbed it.”
Johnson joined the Grand Rapids Reserve Unit 395th Combat Support Hospital. Her military career was spent entirely in the reserves, where she learned nearly ever facet of building and running a mobile field hospital.
“In the 395th, we were a deployable medical system, know as DepMed, and it was basically a hospital in a box," she explained. "My job was to build a hospital. I had to work with the Corps of Engineers to get the ground flattened, then get the hospital to actually fit together.”
The mobile hospital was built on frames, and each unit — X-ray, lab, ICU, a holding area — was its own tented-off section.
“Each of those was 16-by-64-feet, and if they didn’t fit exactly, if you were an inch off, guess what? It took 30 people to pick up the tent and move it to the right spot," she said. "It wasn’t an easy thing to do, so we got it right the first time.”
Johnson had to learn how to run a generator, hook up the electric system and more.
“It was an all-contained hospital and probably about the size of Hackley Hospital at the time,” she said.
Johnson remained in the Army for 12 years. Her duties took her across the country, and she was on the brink of deploying overseas several times.
“There were three different occasions where we were actually in the situation they call 'on alert' — your bags are packed, your affairs are taken care of, you’re ready to leave,” she said. “Three times we were almost deployed to Korea. The hardest part is, you can’t tell anybody that you’re going.”
Having young kids at home complicated things for Johnson, but she had a tremendous support system that helped make everything work.
“When you’re in the military, one of the first things you do is set up a family plan, so that if something happens, you have everything in order — who’s going to take care of your kids, who’s going to take care of your house, who’s going to pay your bills," she said. "We had all of that set up. Was it easy on my family? Probably not.”
Johnson, now 65 and still living in Grand Haven, said the friends she made in the military remain some of her best friends today.
“You get put in with a group of people you’ve never met in your entire life, and the things you can accomplish as a unit are just unbelievable,” she said.
Johnson views the local American Legion post as a place for veterans to share stories that they might not be comfortable sharing with non-military friends.
“It’s a safe place to go to chat about your experiences,” she said. “Some people just need a safe place to talk about that kind of stuff."
Johnson hopes that on Veterans Day, people reflect on the sacrifices it took to create the country we live in today.
“I think it should be a day when people take a couple seconds to step back and say, ‘How did we get here?’” she said. “Is it entirely due to the military? No, but we have a lot to do with keeping things safe and maintaining the freedom we have, and doing everything we can to protect that.”