Mother and son know what it means to be a Marine
Honor Flight gives Muskego woman and New Berlin son something else to share
Mary Wilsens, a deceptively diminutive 90-year-old lady now living in Muskego, was practically born a United States Marine, eventually serving in World War II.
A bit larger in stature, her son Peter, who now lives in New Berlin and turned 19 during the Vietnam War, followed suit, enlisting in the Marines after getting a low number in the draft lottery.
Mother and son joined the Marines for about the same reason.
"The Marines seemed the ultimate," mom said.
Said Peter: "I wanted to go for the best, so I went for the Marines."
Sharing the Honor
Not surprisingly, they share memories of their respective service times, and now they share something else in that realm: an Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C.
Mary agreed to go on the Honor Flight in memory of her Navy husband, Leonard Wilsens, who died in 2007. Mary considered the opportunity in late September a thrill of a lifetime.
"I can't express how wonderful it was," she said. "It was one of the highlights of my life."
Peter said it created a special bond between them.
"How many times do you talk with your parents about what they did with their lives?" he said.
A Marine mom
Fiesty and always a gal who knew what she wanted to do, Mary needed her dad's signed permission to join up.
That alone was enough to impress her son. The way his mother left her small Wisconsin hometown and went all by herself to join the Marines and serve her country "was amazing to me," Peter said.
In fact, that whole generation was amazing to him. "The sacrifices they made, they heard a call to duty and they got up and did it," he said.
Naturally, first came booth camp. Mary's most vivid memory was being awakened practically in the middle of the night to march around the drill field.
Fortunately, despite a war spread over two engagement theaters, Mary did her Marine service stateside, performing clerical tasks in North Carolina.
But that didn't mean she didn't fully adopt a Marine way of life from a discipline and responsibility standpoint.
With five kids to keep track of, mom ran a "tight ship," Peter said. When she told a child to do something, she expected action.
"She was 5-foot 2 and we all jumped when she said something," he said, chuckling. "... You didn't do anything until your chores were done."
Besides being taught to pick up after themselves, Peter said he and his siblings were also taught to be courteous to others.
So Peter didn't have to wait to become a Marine to learn discipline.
Peter's most vivid memory from boot camp is his surprise at how he had gotten a bit of Marine basic training at home.
"Wow, I'm already used to that stuff," he remembered thinking.
Still, his Marine mother, though proud of Peter's decision to become a Marine, was horribly worried when Peter's time came.
"Oh, and how I was worried. It was a bad time," his mother remembered about the Vietnam era.
Peter served in Vietnam as a field radio operator, calling in helicopters for ground troops needing help. Only once in a while did he accompany troops into the field, serving mostly aboard a ship and at a military base. Even so, considerable travel was involved.
"Every time you get into a helicopter, you never knew," he said, noting that some soldiers in his platoon were killed in action.
That reality was part of their Honor Flight trip last month.
At the World War II Memorial in Washington, both were pretty much silent. But Peter saw a tear roll down his mother's face.
"I thought of the boys and girls who gave up their lives," Mary acknowledged.
Peter himself found he was unexpectedly moved by the lifelike statues of soldiers on patrol that is the Korean War Memorial.
"It reminded me of Vietnam; it was surreal," he said. "At one time, I was standing in a position like that."
Peter also recalled that his father saved the lives of some of his shipmates during his Navy service. Leonard Wilsens served aboard a destroyer in World War II that was hit several times by enemy fire.
Frustrated by politics
The mother and son went on the Honor Flight shortly before the National Mall, where the World War II Memorial stands, was barricaded off because of the partial shutdown of the federal government. It was an effort to keep everyone out of the park, including Honor Flights of World War II veterans.
"I think that was dreadful," Mary said. "I don't see why veterans have to be punished."
Her son, too, was incensed.
"That is our mall," belonging to all Americans, he said. "And they knew veterans were coming there to be honored."
He approved of veterans finally taking the barriers down and piling them in front of the White House.
"You've got to make a statement," he said.
Sign of pride
On the positive side, they were both astonished and encouraged at the honor accorded Honor Flight veterans by regular people both here and in Washington.
"I thought we were losing pride in the country," Peter said, but soon found reason to feel otherwise.
At General Mitchell Airport, he saw a crowd of young people applauding and cheering the veterans as they departed from Milwaukee. And when they landed in Washington the scene was the same and it even spilled out into the streets.
"They lined up outside all the way down the road," Peter said.
Police holding traffic back at intersections for the Honor Flight buses to pass saluted, as did some passersby on the sidewalks, he said.
"It was really impressive," he said, and it renewed his hope in the country.
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