Almost from the day he was born, July 2, 1974, George Senseny Eyster V thought everyone's dad wore Army green to work. The first time he held him in his arms, in the maternity ward of the base hospital at Fort Carson, Colorado, George's father was wearing the uniform of a second lieutenant and the maroon beret of the Army Airborne Corps. The backdrops for George's baby pictures were the trappings of Army life: as an infant donning "Big George's" drab-green Army cap, or as a toddler grinning on his father's lap in the passenger seat of an Army jeep.
His mother, meanwhile, was the epitome of an Army wife. The former Ann Pate, with her southern charm and beauty-queen good looks, was the daughter of a retired Army Air Corps pilot who had been serving in the Pacific during World War II when she was born. She spent the first year of her life being taught to kiss a framed photograph of her poppa. George's father had been captivated by her when he met her as an ROTC cadet at Florida State University. They were soon married in the base chapel at Patrick Air Force Base on December 28, 1971. Ann, who had a son, Scott, and a daughter, Teri, from a previous marriage, quickly took to her new role, hosting coffees for other Army wives, coordinating sewing demonstrations, and organizing the unit Christmas party when her husband was a young company commander.
"Little George" was born just a few months after a historic shift in the American armed forces: the end of the military draft. Growing up an Army brat in the all-volunteer military meant coming of age in a largely closed society that only occasionally interacted with the outside world. The military was the Eyster family's life, which meant moving every few years to a different assignment, where there were sometimes as many old faces from previous posts as new ones. By the time George was eight, in 1981, the family had moved from Fort Carson to Stuttgart, Germany, to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Most of the kids George went to school with, and nearly all his friends and neighbors, also had parents in the Army. In addition to photographs of him blowing out birthday candles, the family scrapbooks were filled with shots of George standing awkwardly in front of the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall, landmarks of the Cold War that he was learning was his father's duty to prevent from becoming a full-blown one.
When George was ten, he began to more fully understand what being a soldier meant. His father was flying helicopters in the Eighty-second Airborne Division at Fort Bragg and came home one day that fall to tell him he would be going away for a while. It was October 1983, and President Ronald Reagan was ordering American combat troops to the Caribbean island of Grenada, where a military coup backed by the Cuban and Soviet governments threatened American citizens living there. The family's tearful good-bye as Big George--Major George S. Eyster IV--went off to Operation Urgent Fury was a formative experience for Little George. The fighting only lasted several days and ended with an American victory over the military government. But nineteen U.S. soldiers were killed and 116 wounded. George would never forget the anxiety on his mother's face as she awaited her husband's return.
But it was not until the following spring, when George was almost eleven and finishing fifth grade, that he realized that the faint sound of the bugler playing reveille each dawn was also for him, when he first heard the family ghosts mustering him to the march. It was a Saturday morning in early May 1984. His father was stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where they were living on a tree-lined street of simple brick homes on the sprawling frontier base along the banks of the Missouri River. George was flipping the dial on the living room TV looking for a cartoon. His parents were busy in the kitchen preparing to host a Kentucky Derby party later that day. George was barely paying attention to the changing channels when he heard the television narrator, his voice recorded over grainy combat footage, call out to him.
At first, he didn't understand what he was watching. He stood there transfixed, unable to move, his right hand motionless on the dial, as the sounds from the television set filled the room. With the crackle of automatic weapons fire, the program quickly trained on an anguished-looking soldier, shirtless and slumped over, as he lay dying on the jungle floor, felled by a sniper's bullet to the neck.
"Mom!" George broke into tears as he ran from the room. "I think Grandpa's on TV."
George never knew Grandpa George, once described as a lean, laconic man of few words who resembled film star Gary Cooper in a military uniform (which was always freshly pressed, even in the jungle, so the story went). Lieutenant Colonel George S. Eyster III was killed in combat in Vietnam seven years before George was born. But George felt as if he knew him. The void his grandfather left behind was palpable. It defined his own father's identity and before long George's, too. Grandma Harriet, a tall, regal-looking southern lady with a warm disposition, spoke adoringly of her late husband whenever her favored grandson came to visit. Grandpa George's lingering presence could be felt at Thanksgiving dinner, on birthdays, and at other family celebrations. At times his loss brought a deep sadness to Harriet's sparkling blue eyes, but her feelings were usually well hidden. Instead, her face would grow bright when she spoke of the profession he had chosen.
More than a decade after Grandpa George's death, when the quagmire that became Vietnam was a dark stain for so many, Harriet still exhibited little bitterness about what it had cost her and her four children.
"George wanted to be a military man, he was trained for it, and we have always been proud of what he did," she told a newspaper reporter in 1977. If she had any anger at all, it was that the United States had walked away from the war, allowing the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon to fall to the North Vietnam Communists. "I don't pretend to know the political subtleties," she said, "but we could not help asking ourselves what all the loss of life was for. Yet I hate to say George's life was wasted."
Theirs, too, was a storybook Army love affair. Grandpa George and the former Harriet LaRoche both grew up in Army families. They met in high school at Fort Leavenworth and were married in the West Point chapel on June 6, 1945, Grandpa wearing his starched white cadet uniform. Harriet's father, who was serving in World War II as the chief military surgeon in the Pacific, couldn't make the ceremony. Harriet's bridegroom did not get a chance to fight in World War II, but he served in the Philippines and then on the staff of General Douglas MacArthur in postwar Japan, where Big George had been. He later led an infantry company in the Korean War. He had been one of the Army's most accomplished battalion commanders when he was cut down early in the Vietnam War.
The fact that a photographer and a war correspondent were standing just feet away when he was shot made his loss even more acute. His wife, children, and grandchildren were in effect forced to watch his violent death. Three weeks after the family first heard the news, three images of his final moments were flashed on national television. An obituary by the Associated Press published in dozens of newspapers across the country further immortalized him.
"He was the son of a general," it began, "a West Pointer and a battalion commander. But Lieutenant Colonel George Eyster was to die like a rifleman."
Harriet received twenty-two hundred letters from strangers offering condolences. After reading her husband's obituary in the Orlando Sentinel, she felt compelled to thank the war correspondent who chronicled his death.
"You gave his children a legacy that no one else could have by writing in such a manner that his courage and heroism will live with them and be an inspiration to them forever," she wrote.
Harriet eventually remarried--to a retired Army general of course. But she kept the memory of her first husband very much alive. She did so, in part, by making it known, not always so subtly, that his children could best honor him by living up to his example of selfless service. She was supremely proud when both of their sons followed in his footsteps and their two daughters married military officers. She clearly wanted her favored grandson, George V, to follow suit. But there was time for that.
Big George, who was away at preparatory school when he heard the tragic news from his mother, spoke little about how his father's death affected him. Whenever Little George asked him about Grandpa George, his father volunteered few insights into the man or his influence on him--other than to assure Little George that his father had been far more of a disciplinarian than he was. Only years later would George learn how his father struggled to live up to the ideal that Grandpa George set as a leader of men and how the pressure of it all steered him away from West Point and almost from becoming an Army officer altogether. Big George, too, had ultimately answered the call, earning an ROTC scholarship at Florida State University and graduating in 1971 with the real prospect that he, too, might be sent to the jungles of Vietnam.
But while Big George refrained from lionizing Grandpa George, Grandma Harriet retold stories of his bravery and heroism at every opportunity. Little George ate them up in those early years, rereading his grandfather's obituary countless times, both because he was captivated by the man and in an effort to better understand his own father. A year after he first saw the images of his dying grandfather flash across the TV, a newly published book about the battle further added to the mystique. In the book the men who had been with him that fateful day reported that before he died, Grandpa George voiced his begrudging respect for his enemy.
"Before I go," Lieutenant Colonel Eyster whispered as he gasped for breath on the jungle floor, "I'd like to talk to the guy who controls those incredible men in the tunnels." He never got the chance. After being evacuated to a field hospital, he died on January 14, 1966, at the age of forty-two.
There was a lot to live up to if you were named George Senseny Eyster. But as Little George soon learned, there was more--much more. In fact, most of his male forebears, going back seven generations, had been soldiers, serving in nearly every major conflict in the nation's history. His was a martial legacy--some might say a burden--stretching back more than two centuries to before American independence. It was a paternity that made him eligible for that most exclusive of military fraternities: the Society of the Cincinnati.
The Society of the Cincinnati is located at Anderson House, a stately fifty-room mansion on Embassy Row in Washington, D.C. Distinguishing it from the ornate diplomatic posts along Massachusetts Avenue is the statue of General George Washington standing sentry underneath the flags of the United States and France. The society was established in 1783 at the close of the American War of Independence by officers who served in the Continental Army and their French counterparts who came to their aid. Among its founders were such illustrious patriots as Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton and Major General Henry Knox. The fraternal order, which took its name from the Roman citizen-soldier Cincinnatus, is essentially the nation's oldest veterans' group--and its most exclusive.
Originally, membership was only for military officers who could trace their parentage directly back to one of the 5,795 eligible officers who served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Now in its third century, the society reserves membership for those with the same lineage, but they do not have to serve in the military. With the exception of the South Carolina chapter, each of the original Revolutionary officers can only be represented by one relative at a time, keeping the society exceeding small; currently, there are roughly thirty-eight hundred members, including several hundred from the French branch. One of those Continental Army officers was George Eyster's seventh great-grandfather Wilhelm Heyser.
The family's martial lineage, recounted in some of the brittle parchment rolls kept in the secure vault in the society's library, began in the hot, turbulent summer of 1776. On July 12, a week after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Wilhelm Heyser was commissioned a captain by the Continental Congress. He prepared to set out from his farm in the hills of western Maryland to command a company of ninety soldiers in the German Battalion of the Continental Army. Heyser, a German-speaking immigrant, was born in Holland in 1748 and came to the colonies in his teens. A physician, Freemason, and master builder of the First Reformed Church of Hagerstown, he had already demonstrated his support for the cause of his adopted land, providing "rashons and drink" for the Maryland militia and feeding a company of Continental Army soldiers. He also served on the local Committee of Observation, convened in September 1775 to raise several companies of militia and serve as a clearinghouse for intelligence on British activities in the area. Patriotic fervor was strong in the area, where there were few known loyalists to the British Crown. The mostly German and Swiss immigrants responded in large numbers to the call to arms. Local communities provided uniforms, while gunsmiths struggled to keep up with the German Battalion's training and supply needs.
After taking command, Heyser's unit was dispatched to the outskirts of Philadelphia, where its first battle orders came on Christmas morning, hours after General Washington crossed the Delaware River to launch a surprise attack against the British forces near Trenton, New Jersey. Captain Heyser, who was now going by the Americanized William, gathered with his fellow company commanders on the Pennsylvania side of the river to hear their orders:
You are to see that your men have three days' provisions ready cooked before noon, everyone fit for duty, except a sergeant and six men to be left with the baggage, will parade with arms, accouterments, and ammunition (40 cartridges) in best order and with provisions and blankets. No man is to quit his division on pain of instant punishment. Each officer is to provide himself with a piece of white paper stuck in his hat for a field mark. You will order your men to assemble and parade them at 4 pm in the valley immediately over the hill from McKonkey's Ferry, to remain there for further orders.