There are more than 20 million veterans in the United States, including 1.2 million currently serving on active duty and another 800,000 in the reserves. Many millions more have served in uniform since the birth of our nation, in peacetime and war. Behind every one of them is a story: of struggle, perseverance, camaraderie, triumph, and sometimes even tragedy.
This portrait series highlights veterans through personal keepsakes of their military service or that of a loved one who served—and explains, in the words of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) employees holding the keepsakes, what these items mean to them.
This project takes something so large and important—like our nation’s military veterans—and finds the individual stories within. These personal and emotional accounts foster a reverence for service and sacrifice.
Employee: Sue Ann Applewhite
Rank: Master Gunnery Sergeant
Branch: Marine Corps
Dates of service: 1979–2007
Specialty: Personnel Administrative Chief
My items: Clockwise from top left are a Defense Meritorious Service Medal, a Challenge Coin from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, an Office of the Secretary of Defense Identification Badge, and Master Gunnery Sergeant rank insignia.
What it means: Master Gunnery Sergeant Sue Ann Applewhite served nearly 30 years, during which she worked at Quantico, Andrews Air Force Base, and at the Pentagon during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs under then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. She kept these items as reminders of her service in the Marine Corps, her affiliations, and the journey they took her on. She reflected that she enjoyed being part of a great group whose service was significant and meaningful, especially her involvement in the Global War on Terrorism.
Sue Ann passed away at her home in Springfield, Virginia on March 19, 2018 at the age of 58.
Employee: Lt. Col. Eric Atkisson, Army (Ret.)
Serving family member: Noel Atkisson
Rank: First Lieutenant
Dates of service: 1968-1971
Specialty: Military Intelligence
My item: U.S. Army M7 leather shoulder holster for a Colt .45
What it means to me: My late brother Noel wore this shoulder holster during his tour in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970.
There was an unspoken tradition of military service in my family. I had a grandfather who served in both world wars, my father served as an officer in the Army Reserve, and my older (half) brother Noel completed a tour in Vietnam with the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. He passed away in 2011 and was inurned at Arlington National Cemetery near our father.
To me this holster represents not just my brother’s service, of which I’m very proud, but in a larger sense our family’s. It was in part because of his service and our father’s and grandfather’s before him that I chose to enlist in 1989, followed by 25 years in the Army Reserve and National Guard, including three wartime deployments to the Middle East. I have very few other keepsakes of our collective military service, so I particularly cherish this one. For me military service is one of the highest forms of civic duty—sharing in the defense of a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Employee: Mary Capodice
Serving family member: Joseph Daniel Watson
Branch: Army Air Corps
Dates of service: 1939-1945
My items: Joseph’s money roll, a collection of Allied Military Currency (AMC) from when he was stationed in the Philippines with the Army Air Corps, and photographs of him during this time.
What it means to me: The money roll was found in a trunk of my grandfather’s things after my grandmother passed, along with some photos of his time in military service, including the Philippines. The roll contains 21 AMC notes that my grandfather collected during his deployment and taped together.
I never knew that my grandfather was in the military until after I had joined the Air Force. It was something that just wasn’t talked about. I was only seven when he passed away. My grandfather did tell my father a few stories that my father has since told me. This item is very special to me because it tells a story that I was never able to ask about.
Employee: Greg Dodson
Rank: Colonel (Ret.)
Branch: Air Force
Dates of service: 1986-2014
Specialty: F-16 pilot
My item: The arming wire for a Mark 84 2000-pound general purpose bomb.
What it means to me: This is the arming wire for the first weapon I ever dropped in combat, which occurred during Operation Desert Storm (1991). It is the only component that remains on the bomb pylon after the weapon is released. I have kept it for almost 28 years. Every pilot I have ever met has kept his or her arming wire from the first bomb they dropped in combat. It is a singularly emotional event. The flight was my first combat mission as a fighter pilot. The target was an airfield in southern Iraq just outside the city of An Nasirayah. It was also the first (and last) time I was ever shot at.
Years later I was able to get to Tallil Air Base (the target). During Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003) and subsequent combat operations in Iraq, the base hosted a number of American forces along with allied military personnel and equipment. Amazing how that happens… one day you’re blowing something up, the next you’re eating dinner there.
Employee: Maj. Dean Dominique, Army (Ret.)
Serving family member: Herman Robichaux Sr.
Rank: Private First Class
Dates of service: 1944–1945
My items: A Bronze Star, Combat Infantryman Badge, and 1945 portrait from Germany of my grandfather, Herman Robichaux Sr., who served under General George S. Patton during the Battle of the Bulge.
What it means to me: I keep these items as a reminder of my grandfather who died before I was born. He was killed in 1958 by a drunk driver.
I grew up admiring him through the photos and stories shared in his absence. When I joined the Army after high school, I chose Germany as my station of choice because I knew that he had served in the European Theater of War during and after the Battle of the Bulge. He was the inspiration for me to write a book about his unit in WWII, simply because I wanted to know more about what he went through while serving in combat under General Patton. The book, published in 2014, is titled One Hell of a War: General Pattons’s 317th Infantry Regiment in WWII. Proceeds are donated to programs that support America’s wounded warriors.
Employee: John F. Koeppen
Rank: Captain (Ret.)
Branch: US Coast Guard
Theater: North America
Dates of service: 1984-2010
Specialty: Operations, intelligence, planning, and law
My items: Challenge coins from the Secretary of Commerce and Chief, U.S. Border Patrol, and a patch from the United States, Canada Integrated Border Enforcement Team (IBET).
What it means to me: I received these items for active duty service during Operation Noble Eagle (2002-2010) and Operation Podium (2008-2010). Operation Noble Eagle is the name for continuing military operations related to homeland security and support to federal, state, and local agencies in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. As part of this effort the U.S. Coast Guard protected more than 361 ports and 95,000 miles of coastline. Operation Podium was the Canadian military forces designation for its support to security for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games and Paralympics, to which the U.S. Coast Guard and many other U.S. government agencies contributed.
It was a great honor and privilege to serve alongside U.S. and Canadian military and law enforcement partners to plan and execute cross-border maritime security operations for the U.S.–Canada maritime border, including for the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics. Our Canadian allies always will have our back and the USA will have theirs.
When I joined the Coast Guard two and a half weeks after my 18th birthday, I had no idea how fortunate I would be to live the incredible experience that is the United States Coast Guard. The USCG, and all our Armed Forces, simply are the best. Semper Paratus!
Employee: John Palafoutas
Dates of service: 1966-1970
My item: Photo of 22-year-old Second Lieutenant John Palafoutas in Vietnam, 1967.
What it means to me: I did two tours of duty with a logistics battalion in the north Mekong Delta, during which I took over 150 snapshots with my Pentax Spotmatic 35 mm camera. I served just over four years before being discharged at the rank of captain. These pictures remind me of how young I was, how little I knew, and how fortunate I was to serve with the people I did.
For a kid coming out of Pittsburgh, my military service was fundamental to my sense of self-worth and my self-confidence. I served in America’s least popular war in a time when those of us in the military were disrespected and unappreciated. It didn’t matter to me. I did my job, and I did it well. And when I got back from Vietnam, my mother still loved me. That was all the recognition I needed.
Employee: Cevilla R. Randle
Rank: Chief Warrant Officer Four (Ret.)
Theater: Republic of Korea and numerous stateside locations
Dates of service: 1989-2010
Specialty: Adjutant General Corps, Human Resources Manager
My items: “Eagle Rising” insignia
What it means to me: The “Eagle Rising” collar insignia was worn in lieu of branch insignia by U.S. Army warrant officers and was replaced by branch insignia in 2004. The Rising Eagle is significant because it represents new beginnings for my family, reminding me of my transition experience at Fort Rucker, Alabama, where I removed my noncommissioned officer insignia and took the commissioned warrant officer oath.
As a disabled veteran, I am both humbled and honored as I reflect on my tenure as an active duty soldier. My decision to join the military in 1989 was born of my desire to do more to provide for my family. As a youngster, being in the military not only helped provide basic needs for survival but gave me the opportunity to be part of a team. Serving changed my perspective, my way of life, and broadened my view of the world and the country in which I live.
As a retired Army officer, I realize that I am and always will be a member of a time honored corps and that my actions and reactions impact my entire family. Little did I know that my family would grow to exceed three million. The commitment I made in 1989 is never ending. Serving on active duty in the military exceeded my individual goals and expectations. I remain humbled and honored to stand with and on behalf of those who served before me, with me, and the generations of others that continue serve our great nation.
Employee: Janine Scianna
Serving family member: Frank Fisler
Dates of service: 1939-1943
My item: Sword that belonged to my great uncle Frank
What it means to me: This is the sword that belonged to my great uncle, Navy Lieutenant Frank Fisler. As an ensign at age 23, in 1942, he was awarded the Navy Cross. While in command of a patrol plane operating off the island of Oahu he sighted and rescued eight Army airmen adrift in a collapsible rubber boat. With great skill and at extreme personal risk, he brought his plane down in 40-foot seas, rescued the men, and returned to Pearl Harbor.
He later went missing in action and was presumed dead while flying a bombing mission during the Battle of Guadalcanal. In addition to the Navy Cross he was awarded the Purple Heart, the Air Medal, and two Distinguished Flying Cross awards for his heroism.
I never met my great uncle but grew up hearing stories of his heroism and seeing his awards framed on the wall of my grandparents' house. My grandfather (his brother) and my father passed on his memory along with countless newspaper articles, awards, his aviation log book, and his sword. All these, except the sword, will become part of an upcoming exhibit at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida.
I am honored to personally own his officer sword. It embodies the selfless sacrifice he made to airmen he didn't even know, who were destined to perish in the Pacific unless he risked his own life to save them. Due to his actions, it is thought that his award of the Navy Cross was the very first of WWII. My great uncle, a legend in my family, continues to inspire selflessness and commitment generations later.
Employee: Troy Tyler
Rank: Command Sergeant Major (Ret.)
Theater: Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan
Dates of service: 1985-2014
Specialty: Paralegal Specialist (Regimental Command Sergeant Major)
My item: Replica of a section of T-wall at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Danger in Tikrit, Iraq that I keep on my desk. An actual T-wall is a twelve-foot-high, steel-reinforced concrete wall used for blast protection.
What it means to me: I was stationed at FOB Danger in 2004. During my assignment there, I had stopped to refuel my vehicle across from a small container yard next to a row of “T-walls.” I heard the distinctive sound like a “thwoosh!” of a mortar round. I immediately turned and ran for cover. A mortar round landed just behind me in the container yard where a combination of the T-walls and the containers absorbed the brunt of the blast.
Were it not for the T-walls and the containers, things could have turned out much worse.
I believe we live in the greatest nation. Even with all of our challenges, issues, and differences, we still are the greatest. It’s like a dysfunctional family, but at the end of the day, it’s my family.
I believe it is truly an honor to serve, because you have the opportunity to protect this country and our way of life from anyone or anything that would threaten it.
I joined as a brand new private with a high school education with no idea what I was getting into and retired as the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps Regimental Command Sergeant Major, with deployments to three combat zones as well as several visits to those dangerous areas—and I would do it all again, in a heartbeat.
Employee: Anthony Twitty
Rank: Chief Master Sergeant (Ret.)
Branch: Air Force
Theater: Various stateside and overseas locations
Dates of service: 1981-2008
Specialty: Information Management
My items: Clockwise from top left: Air Force Commendation Medal, U.S. insignia, Challenge Coin from General John Jumper (Air Force Chief of Staff), and Headquarters Air Force Badge.
What it means to me: The significance of these items is related to the tragic events of 9/11, when I was assigned to Bolling Air Force Base as Acting First Sergeant during the 9/11 attack, directly supervising the enlisted troops tasked with identifying and documenting the remains of deceased service members. I received the Air Force Commendation Medal for my accomplishments.
There is no training or preparation for a terrorist attack like 9/11. It had a lasting effect on how I view the importance of what we do. I seldom recall hearing the words “Thank you for your service” before 9/11, but in my humble opinion, a newfound respect and appreciation for the Armed Forces arose from the ashes on that dreadful day.
While not the highest award I received, this is the one I received during my career that elicits the most emotions from me. I’ve lost friends and loved ones in combat before, but this Air Force Commendation Medal causes me to reflect on the lives that were lost on 9/11 and the tedious, emotional task of identifying body parts for “next of kin” notifications from the rubble and ashes at the Pentagon. I was scheduled to arrive at 10 a.m. that day. I realize that I could have been in the building when the attack happened. I feel my contribution was so insignificant in comparison to the great sacrifice so many gave.
Employee: Lt. Col. Nicole Wishart, Air Force
Serving family member: Ron Wishart
Rank: Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.)
Branch: Army and Air Force
Theater: Southeast Asia
Dates of service: 1960-1992
Specialty: Air Force combat controller and Army infantry officer.
My items: Clockwise from top left: my father’s Purple Heart, a November 1965 photo of my father loading radios into an O1E aircraft in Laos during the Vietnam War, a Ravens coin presented to my father at a Ravens annual reunion, and out lieutenant colonel rank insignia.
What it means to me: During the Vietnam War my father worked as an Air Force Air Commando Combat Controller with the local forces and flew in whatever aircraft he could borrow to direct airstrikes from the air. He later served in Vietnam with the U.S. Army as a rifle company commander. It was during this time that he earned his Purple Heart. In total he spent 28 years in the Air Force and Army, and with the Army National Guard and Army Reserve.
I currently serve in the Air Force Legal Operations Agency as Senior Individual Mobilization Augmentee to the Director, Government Trial and Appellate Counsel Division. At my most recent promotion ceremony in 2015, in which my father participated, I proudly rendered him one last military salute as I joined him in the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Growing up, my sister and I enjoyed eating MREs (meals-ready-to-eat) while camping in the backyard, marching around in my dad’s old military uniforms during a neighborhood game of “Manhunt,” and having white glove room inspections. What I first experienced as fun child’s play grew into a much deeper appreciation as I learned more about my father’s service, his sacrifices, and strength.
This exhibit was made possible with support from the USPTO Military Association. Established in 2012 as an affinity group, their mission is to provide fellowship, mentorship, and support to military veterans working at the USPTO. The UMA is open to all.
Produced and photographed by Jay Premack of the Office of the Chief Communications Officer.