Know your history to understand yourself

  • Published
  • By Chaplain (Maj.) Don Bretz
  • 71st Flying Training Wing chaplain
Have you ever gone to an historic battlefield? Have you ever researched your family history to discover how your family story intersects our nation's history? History is more than knowing dates on a timeline; it provides a context for understanding yourself and others.

When I was in elementary school, I loved to go on field trips to the U.S. Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. In those days one could actually go through historic cargo planes or bombers and stand or sit in various crew positions. Looking through the top turret of a B-17 at the museum, I imagined that I was on a combat mission warding off enemy fighters. Those historic planes connected me to Airmen who courageously risked their lives in monumental moments.

That was one of my fondest early memories, but as I've moved to different places while serving in the military, each place has been rich in history.

McGuire AFB, N.J., is near many historic American Revolutionary War sites: Washington's Crossing; the Battles of Trenton, Princeton, and Monmouth; and the wintering of the Army at Jockey Hollow, Morristown and Valley Forge. I appreciated the hardships of those winters even more after freezing in Greenland. I realized that our independence was more than signified on parchment - it was written with the blood of all who sacrificed to serve for freedom.

We sing about freedom each time we sing the national anthem. Yet it wasn't until visiting Fort McHenry in Maryland that I appreciated the pivotal role the War of 1812 had in securing our freedom. After that visit, the words of our national anthem became all the more meaningful.

Being stationed at Bolling AFB, D.C., it was an easy day drive to Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and other Civil War battlefields. Hundreds of thousands of Americans took a stand during that war and many are buried near where they took their final stand.

One who rose to fame during the Civil War was George Armstrong Custer. Following the Civil War and before his famous "Last Stand," he led an attack known as the Battle of Washita, also called the Washita Massacre, near Cheyenne, Okla., about three hours west of Vance AFB. I would encourage you to look it up, or better yet, take a road trip there. History is more than words and dates - it stirs emotions.

Going to historic sites is one thing. Learning how your family history connects to the larger context of history can be life changing. There is a new television series which researches the history of a famous celebrity each week. Each of us, famous or not, has a family history.

Researching my ancestors has made American history more personal. Benjamin Swett was killed in 1677 near Black Point, Maine, during the colonial Indian wars. Lewis Piatt was just a young teenager from Westchester County, N.Y., when he served during the American Revolution guarding cattle and tending to the wounded.

Samuel B.H. Jones travelled as a Kentucky militiaman up to Canada and fought in the Battle of the Thames during the War of 1812. Frank Turner of Nantucket, Mass., was shot at the Battle of Kingston during the Civil War. Chauncey Johnson answered the draft from rural Adams County, Ohio, during World War I, but the war ended before he was placed in uniform.

My dad served during the last year of World War II in the Pacific working in the engine room of various ships in the U.S. Maritime Service -- commonly referred to as the Merchant Marine. My son was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation as a member of the Third Infantry Division in Iraq.

History is personal and it connects us to events and to others. Now with the onset of DNA genealogy testing, anyone can learn about their deep connections to history. It is valuable to know your story and how that story connects to others. The same is true of spirituality and religion.

Spirituality is related to biography as religion is to history. Spirituality is personal, yet it is religion that provides a framework in connecting to others. My hope is that you will claim your story and your spirituality and discover the richness of connecting with God and others.