DAVENPORT, Wash. - They call her The Colonel, and for good reason. Bernice Leavitt Jackson has presided over a lot of troops.
Jackson, a fast-talking Roman candle of memories who’s “going on 80,” has never served directly in the military. But her passion for honoring those who do comes from a deep well of personal contribution: Her husband served in the Army during World War II. Seven of her eight sons served, including David, an Army staff sergeant serving his second tour of duty in Baghdad. Their photos hang on the living room wall, surrounded by every variety of patriotic expression imaginable, from flags to personal letters of thanks from a member of Congress, governor and secretary of the Air Force.
All of which is to say nothing of her brother and brothers-in-law, who fought in some of the major battles of World War II. Or her father and uncles, who served in the First World War. Or her grandfather, who fought and died in the Civil War.
During the Vietnam War, two of Jackson’s sons served on the same ship, while another served in combat, and a fourth was stationed in Germany.
“Can you imagine three boys in a war zone at once?” said Jackson. “Then we had two in Iraq. No wonder I got white hair.”
We hear a lot about “supporting the military” - virtually everyone expresses this support, and it’s sincere but sometimes rather shallowly felt. A lot of us live in virtually complete detachment from wars and are afforded the luxury of viewing them as political exercises.
Jackson’s entire life places this detachment into sharp relief. There is nothing theoretical or political about it.
Her husband and sons collected a variety of honors and accolades, and all returned safely from their tours of duty. Her oldest, Robert, suffers from “black lung” as a result of Agent Orange exposure, she said. They lost a son, Patrick, to a drunken driver in 1989. And her husband - “my Bobby” - passed away last August after a long illness.
The Colonel can be tough, but she becomes emotional when recalling her last days with Bobby, and the visit paid to him by Washington’s “first gentleman,” Mike Gregoire. She remembers joking with her husband about the fact that she’d never had indoor plumbing until she married into his family.
“He hugged me and he cried and he laughed, and we cried and we laughed,” she said.
Bernice was born in Maiden Rock, Wis., and her father moved the family to Quilcene, on the Olympic Peninsula, in 1929. He worked as a logger - she once wrote a poem about him titled “Shorty the Shakemaker” - and the family all worked the fields, dug clams and scraped to get by.
She met Bobby at a “fishermen’s ball” in Quilcene in 1949, and they had their first date not long after. They married in 1950 and started a family - one son after another. By 1965, they made the front page of the Port Townsend Leader: “Boys - 8 in a Row.” Her ninth and final child was a daughter.
The idea of military service was always in the air. Bernice’s mother often told the boys: “When you’re 17 I’m putting you in the Army.”
“One went in, and they all started following,” she said.
Her three oldest sons, Robert, Daniel and Patrick, served in the Navy in Vietnam. Harvey served in the Army during that war, stationed in Germany. David is on his second tour in Iraq, and his brother Allen served four deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan as an Air Force Reserve chaplain’s assistant. Dennis served 16 years and two tours overseas in the Army.
Bernice is justifiably proud of their service but not all that analytical about it. She said she was always concerned for their safety but her faith helped her to get through.
“When you worry, you don’t trust,” she said. “And when you trust, you don’t worry.”
Still, she considers her support for the military twofold: for those who serve and for the families at home.
“No one will ever know, unless you have someone in the service,” she said. “The military families are doing a very, very hard part.”
She travels to events to support veterans and festoons her home and yard with signs of support. Even her car - eight little flags sit in the rear window of her Honda Accord, with a personalized license plate: PA7SONS. She has magnetized photographs of her husband and sons that she slaps on the car for special occasions.
She’s just as proud of her two kids who didn’t enter the military - Jeffrey and Denise, both of whom went into teaching.
Bernice says she found Jesus Christ in 1953 - the saving grace of her life. When she lost Patrick to the drunken driver, she said, “The Lord Jesus Christ said, you know, Bernice, if you can’t forgive that boy, I can’t forgive you,” she said.
So she went to one of the court proceedings for the driver; afterward, in the hallway outside the courtroom, she hugged the man and said she forgave him.
“He wept like a baby,” she said. “That’s what we need in this world. We need more forgiving.”
She and her husband moved to Davenport 11 years ago to be near two of her granddaughters - both of whom are regular entrants in VFW patriotic essay contests. Bernice’s home on Main Street, which they decorate regularly for the changing seasons and holidays, is well-kept and filled with a trove of memorabilia.
“I’m an antique,” she said. “You see all the junk in this house? Antiques are valuable now.”