My father, Russell Penniman, was a Naval aviator who flew from the deck of the USS Philippine Sea during the Korean War while assigned to Fighter Squadron 51, the “Screaming Eagles,” long before I was born.
Upon his return to Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego, he was selected as a Blue Angel flight demonstration team alternate, and I remember him taking me to see these low-flying acrobatic pilots astound audiences all over the country. He was a giant to me and my two brothers – so distinguished in his Navy whites and blues, shoes always polished, saluting his senior officers and being saluted to by the men under his command. He proudly served as a Naval officer for 33 years, 10 of those as an aviator, 23 as a reservist, and ultimately, he would command a Reserve A-4 “Skyhawk” light attack squadron and reserve Air Wing, retiring with the rank of Captain.
The influence of a military career on service members’ spouses and children is profound. In my case, I was incredibly lucky that my father came back from war, and am saddened that there are so many who cannot say that. My father taught me the importance of discipline, loyalty, accountability and patriotism – which run deep in both me and my siblings – and qualities I have worked hard to pass along to my own three children.
I chose a life of public service because of my father. Working for the federal government for many years, I am now part of the American Red Cross – one of the most storied humanitarian organizations in the world, with a mission born from our founder Clara Barton’s dedication to support the wounded on the battlefield. My brother, Russell, named for our father, also chose a career in the Navy as an aviator, attending the United States Naval Academy (’79), and after 35 years of service, retiring just three years ago as Two-Star Admiral.
I wish my father had lived long enough to see his children come into their own as adults and to meet his grandchildren. But sadly, 26 years ago, he was lost at sea. It was an American Red Cross emergency message that transmitted the news to my brother that he needed to come home on emergency leave from the USS Abraham Lincoln strike group, then in transit to the Middle East, to be with our family.
I will never forget my father, and how his sense of duty in service to his country shaped everyone lucky enough to call him father, brother or a friend. And my gratitude extends to the nation’s military today – I thank every man and woman in uniform, and their families – for their commitment, service and sacrifice to this great nation of ours.