Even when it isn't Veterans Day, many people struggle with the challenge of showing gratitude to military veterans for the sacrifices they have made in service to our nation. Many will offer a heartfelt statement – “thank you for your service" – when they see a veteran, but a recent poll indicated that veterans, the recipients of the appreciation, often feel uncomfortable and fumble for a suitable response.
Navy Commander Sean Thompson '98, who was Norfolk Academy's special guest speaker for a Veterans Day chapel organized by the Upper School Military Appreciation Club, understands why that may be so. “For a veteran, the call to serve is an intimate and personal decision," he said. “We all choose to wear our nation’s cloth for myriad purposes. For me, I am the fourth Thompson to serve in the U.S. Navy – following my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before me."
Yet even that familial heritage did not make military service a foregone conclusion. Thompson, who did his chapel speech via Zoom from Yokosuka, Japan, where he is serving as the Executive Officer for Region Legal Service Office, Western Pacific, said the decision to serve was far from his mind during his years as a proud Bulldog, and even during his time at the College of William & Mary.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 that killed nearly 3,000 Americans, Thompson suddenly felt the call to service, one that had been forged by his years as a member of the Norfolk Academy “ohana" – a Hawaiian term that translates as “family," but is much broader than one's relatives. Thompson and his family have spent many years in Hawaii, and they have absorbed the concept of “ohana," that group of people who give you energy and strength.
While Thompson's children have many in Hawaii that they refer to as “aunties" and “uncles," Thompson said that he locates his family back at 1585 Wesleyan Drive. “For me personally, Norfolk Academy is also my Ohana. It is a community, a family that molds who we are," he said to the students. “Whether you realize it or not, you are being molded. You are being molded to be a servant for a greater cause."
He called out numerous teachers and experiences that had shaped his character and led him toward the life he now has, even as he was unaware of all that was unfolding within him. Mr. Oberdorfer, who taught him that “passion is not enough, you have to share it;" Mrs. Gorsline, who “illustrated the virtues of patience and loyalty to your people;" Coach York, who gave him mental fortitude; Coaches Duquette and Duffy, who taught him how to stay calm in tense situations; Coach Byler. who exemplified focused attention; Coach Wetmore, who encouraged everyone to show leadership; and Mrs. Hume, who “challenged me to think outside my comfort zone."
Those teachers instilled a determination to serve that he has carried forward as an attorney and an officer in the Navy. Veterans Day is written without an apostrophe, he noted, because it does not belong to veterans; it is a holiday set aside for the entire nation, a day set aside to thank both the living and deceased veterans of our nation. And the best way to do that, he said, is to serve – not necessarily in uniform, but through serving the greater good.
“I challenge you, as fellow members of the Norfolk Academy ohana, to serve," he said. “Honor your teachers, honor your parents who have sent you here, through your service. You’ll always make your teachers’ day by telling them thanks, but you’ll make their career by making a difference in this world through your service."