By LIBBY CLUETT
At age 30, Athena Hodges Brown is among the county’s younger veterans, but by serving five years in the U.S. Navy, she has seen the ocean – actually, she said she has “seen many different oceans.”
Since she’s a 2001 Mineral Wells High School graduate, she hasn’t missed a local Veterans’ Day ceremony, with the exception of her years in military service.
As some readers may know, she hasn’t been totally respected as a veteran participant. It’s been two years since she “was interrogated and harassed,” at the 2010 Veteran’s Day ceremony, by so-called veterans. That treatment was, for her, “The worst it’s ever been.”
“I didn’t have any problems last year,” she said with a smile, adding that she received “honorable treatment” when she and her mother were invited to sit on the field on the same row as dignitaries like Mayor Mike Allen, State Rep. Jim Keffer and State Sen. Craig Estes.
“I was nervous, but I felt honored to sit down with fellow veterans,” she said.
With her low point behind her, Brown said this year should be one of her high points. She won’t be on the field, but her daughter, Kaylee, will be, performing as a Lamar Little Trooper.
The first grader told her mom that she “got picked to toss around a toy rifle” in Monday’s ceremony.
Sea to shining sea
Brown served in the Navy from Aug. 8, 2001, to March 6, 2006.
“I was in boot camp when 911 hit,” she recalled. “It made everybody be more cautious.”
She was a storekeeper and served for two years on “a small ship,” she said of the 610-foot-long U.S.S. Oak Hill (LSD-51), docked near Virginia Beach, that had a regular crew of about 300.
She served on a six-month deployment, which Brown said included “some training and I got to see ports across the world. It was awesome.”
She saw Spain, Crete, Bahrain, the Seychelles and her ship transported Marines for Iraqi Freedom.
It was weathering Hurricane Isabel in 2003 – somewhat like Hurricane Sandy – that provided much excitement while Brown served on the Oak Hill. Riding out the storm on the ocean, as the ship tried to stay on the edge of the storm, was “Interesting, to say the least. We couldn’t walk anywhere because of rocking ship.”
Brown served at the Oceana Naval Air Station and with the Navy’s Seabee, or construction battalion, unit’s Underwater Construction Team One, at the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base, both in the Virginia Beach region of Virginia.
She followed in the footsteps of her brother, James Hodges, who joined the Navy.
“I wanted to grow up and be just like him,” she said. “He was the main reason. And the fact that I was serving my country.”
“I loved it. Even when Iraqi Freedom was going on, we transported some Marines – they got close to land, but Marines disembarked in ‘amphibs,’” she recalled of her deployment.
“It gives me a sense of pride and honor that I can say I served my country. I’d gladly do it again in a heartbeat.”
Brown also has a 5-year-old son at Lamar, who might follow in his sister’s footsteps as a Little Trooper next year.
But Kaylee has been preparing to perform before her mother and her fellow veterans.
“She is beyond thrilled that she gets to perform,” Brown said, adding that she will be sitting (or standing and photographing) from the visitor-side stands, with the mass of veterans.
To her, the day and ceremony honors “those who served before me and those who literally gave their all. And to honor those out there right now, risking everything,” she said.
Two years ago, Brown left the ceremony early when she was “interrogated and harassed by two Army veterans.” She had been sitting alone on the home side of the stadium and their harassment began shortly after she arrived.
She’s forgiven them, she said. She added that she met “many many local veterans” after the incident hit the news. She said Commander Jim Vines invited her to become a fellow member of AmVets Post 133.
“I love those guys,” Brown said.
“I won’t miss [a Veteran’s Day ceremony] unless I’m in the hospital,” she said. “I’ll go every year.”
For other veterans in attendance Monday, she said, “I hope that they get to take home that they are appreciated, they are being honored and respected and we are thankful that they go out and do what they do.”
“Whether in the Coast Guard, Army, Navy or Marines, they give up such a big part of their life,” Brown said. “Especially those going off to Iraq or Afghanistan. The ones fighting over there don’t know if they are going to make it through the day. Those are the families I pray for the most, those [with loved ones] fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. They don’t know when their soldier’s going to come home.”
By LIBBY CLUETT
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