USNA Graduation Brings A Family Full Circle

By Maureen Castellano

As I watched my 92-year-old Navy veteran father render the first salute to his newly commissioned ensign grandson this Memorial Day weekend, I witnessed life coming full circle. Eight years ago, nearly to the day, my father and my then 14-year-old son stood together on the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, in Normandy, France, envisioning the struggles and sacrifices of the U.S. Naval forces arriving in the stormy English Channel on D-Day. It was on that day that my son decided to become a U.S. Naval officer.

My parents had come to Paris in the spring of 2012 to visit us during our final overseas posting with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. We had traveled, just before Memorial Day, to Normandy with our three young children, to show them the place where World War II’s most decisive battle had been won.

We stood on the shores of Omaha Beach and frankly, I was disappointed. There is a beautiful memorial there, but the sandy beach that day was filled with sunbathers, as wind surfers sailed the gently lapping blue waters. While I appreciated the great victory of life and freedom marching on, I had no sense of the terrible sacrifice that had made it so.

Our visit to the American Cemetery and its well-done, interactive visitor’s center brought that back to me. I read the words of General Dwight Eisenhower as he prepared for battle, and saw the cables informing the D-Day leaders of the threatening weather forecasts for the planned invasion. It was humbling to hear our guide’s stories of the sacrifices of the troops as we walked across the cemetery’s lush green grass. Gazing on the row upon row of white headstones made my breath catch: each of those markers represented a mother’s son who never returned from battle. Perhaps more heartbreaking was the long wall inscribed with the names of those lost at sea, or missing in action; those without a proper grave at which family could leave a letter, a flower, their tears.

Our guide presented my father with a set of the U.S. and French flags being placed at each grave for the upcoming American holiday. The gesture choked him up: enlisting in the Navy following his high school graduation in 1945, with the Allied victory in sight, my father does not consider himself a veteran. He served for barely a year, at the Tampa Shipyards, heading to sea just once, to commission the repair ship the USS Cadmus. He says he cannot claim veteran status when so many classmates and friends faced the true battle.

Our final stop that brilliant blue-skied day was at Pointe du Hoc, where the U.S. Army Rangers scaled up the sheer cliffs where the German bunkers awaited. The enormous bomb craters now were lined with softly waving grass, the old stone bunkers beginning to crumble. But standing on those cliffs, with the channel breezes whispering past my ears, I could almost hear the battle cries of the brave young men who stormed that stretch of beaches in 1944.

In that moment, I finally understood my father’s determination to enlist in ‘45, even with the war over in Europe and the last battles underway in the Pacific Theater. And, on that day, my son committed to following in the footsteps of his grandfather, and his father, a 31-year federal law enforcement officer, to protect his country from all enemies, foreign and domestic. My son decided that day, on the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, that he wanted to attend the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.

This Memorial Day weekend, after four years of often-grueling military training, my son graduated from USNA and took the oath of office during a private commissioning celebration. The ceremonial oath was administered by his Blue & Gold Officer, a 1965 academy graduate who had guided him in his journey since he returned to the U.S. for high school. As my son said an emphatic “I do!” in the presence of his family, especially my father, I saw life come full circle. My new Ensign then stood at attention, facing his grandfather, as he crisply rendered that first salute in time-honored tradition. I only wish my mother had lived to see this day. Fair winds and following seas, my son. I am so proud of you.