Grandchildren of World War II Vets Continue to Honor Military Ties in Personal Way
An overwhelming sense of national pride … that familiar lump in your throat … even unexpected tears …
Anyone who has been to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Memorial Day Weekend knows how emotional it is to witness the solemn, yet beautiful, pageantry of the military pre-race ceremonies.
Count FOX Sports’ Shannon Spake and Jeff Hammond among those profoundly moved by the sight of 5,000 active service members at the track. Both embrace personal emotions during those moments, and consider themselves fortunate their family members returned home from service, while America pauses to pay tribute to those who have fallen.
To the Coca-Cola 600 (live on FOX on Sunday, May 29 at 6:00 PM ET), Spake brings the perspective of a childhood lived with a military family. Hers includes a World War II Army veteran-grandfather who earned a Silver and Bronze Star (and was among the Army men that secured the area around the USS Missouri for the Japanese surrender to General MacArthur); a father who flew F-4 fighter jets and served during the Vietnam War; and a mother who was a naval cadet. Hammond grew up the son and grandson of Navy men and went on to spend much of his adult life honoring the military in multiple trips overseas to visit U.S. troops.
“It’s incredibly moving to see the soldiers at Charlotte Motor Speedway enter our world for the weekend,” Spake said. “I am enormously touched each time because I know how much my grandfather, father and mother sacrificed for our country. My grandfather, Army Corporal Don Speacht, played a large role in major World War II battles, and he saw many of his friends fall. He is 92 and still has nightmares about the war. For me, the pageantry and military ceremonies this weekend are beautiful and moving because I see the military from a different set of eyes, having lived it through their experiences.”
Hammond, a former two-time championship crew chief and current FOX NASCAR analyst, also has a different perspective on the armed services because of his father and grandfather’s service. His grandfather was a lieutenant commander on a battleship in World War II, while his father served in the Navy and Air Force.
“I love hanging out with our soldiers at Charlotte, but to visit them where they are serving, like Bosnia, Korea, Germany and Iraq, and to see the smiles on their faces when we talk about our two worlds, truly is what I am at the core,” said Hammond, who first began working with the military in 1976. “I used to think we in NASCAR sacrifice because we go, go, go and don’t take care of our families like we should and don’t see our kids until they’re asleep, but a military member’s thrill is getting to FaceTime their families while they are cooking dinner. That’s a reality check. Those are two entirely different worlds with no comparison between the two.”
Spake’s grandfather served in the Army from 1943-1946 and was part of its first organized Airborne unit. Her father, Lieutenant Colonel Don Speacht, served 10 years active duty in the Marines, with four months in combat flying F-4 fighter jets over Cambodia in 1973 and an additional 13 years as a reservist. He met her mother, Valerie Speacht, while she was a naval cadet in Meridian, Miss. Spake was born and spent the first few years of her life there and on military bases in Quantico, Va., and Beaufort, S.C.
The mother of twin seven-year-old boys makes a point to impress upon her children the sacrifices their grandfather and great-grandparents made for the United States, instilling in them an appreciation for the military not often seen at such a young age.
“Anytime we see a service member, I have my kids walk up and thank them,” she related. “If we see them on the road, we roll down the window, wave and say ‘thank you,’ she explained. “No doubt they’re the first to stand up and put their hands over their hearts when the national anthem comes on. I hung up my dad’s Marine plaques in the boys’ room. We can’t put up all of them right now, as some have curse words, but as soon as they are old enough, every single plaque will be on their walls from my dad’s days flying F4’s.”
By far, one of the highlights of Spake’s life came last December during the FOX Sports Pearl Harbor Invitational at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam during the 75th commemoration of the attacks on the base. Spake served as a sideline reporter for four college basketball games played at storied Bloch Arena, which withstood the attack by Imperial Japan and serves as a continuous legacy to those stationed in Hawaii.
“The Pearl Harbor Invitational was, and always will be, one of the most significant events I have covered in my career,” Spake stated. “Being among the survivors of Pearl Harbor and WWII is something I will cherish forever. Pete Dupre, who is 97 and a World War II survivor, played the national anthem on his harmonica. There wasn’t a dry eye in the entire place. General Robert Brown (Commanding General of the U.S. Army Pacific) gave me a coin for my grandfather and one for my children. I was able to relay the news on-camera to my grandfather that the coin had been presented to me on his behalf. What an honor.”
The highlight of Hammond’s overseas work with the military came in his trip to Iraq, his first overseas venture, with General Sadler of Speedway Children’s Charities in a group sponsored by the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR).
“My trip to Iraq was the closest I’ve been to a combat situation,” related Hammond, who subsequently went to Korea, Germany and Bosnia. “I learned to appreciate the hardships military members endure and the things they look forward to that we take for granted – like a three-minute shower and a hot meal. You learn to follow orders verbatim, especially when flying in a Blackhawk helicopter and traveling in a convoy. Those experiences have grown my appreciation and admiration for anyone who has put on a uniform to serve.
“I’ve done everything with the military from spy lines to skydiving into Charlotte Motor Speedway to flying with the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds, riding in Humvees and practicing rollovers, to shooting on indoor ranges,” he continued. “I always jump at the opportunity to hang out with some of the most respectful, God-fearing, USA-loving individuals you’ll ever encounter. They make me so proud to be born in this country.”
By virtue of his military upbringing, Hammond learned the value of respecting others, a principle he sees on display each time he is in the presence of service members.
“My dad was a Navy man who strictly enforced rules and regulations,” Hammond recalled. “He served in two different branches of the military and understood discipline and how far a firm handshake and a ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir’ will carry you in this world. Everyone deserves that respect. Our service members have always shown me the utmost respect. They are the first to offer me a seat or hold the door for me, when I should be serving them or standing watch for them so they can get an extra hour of sleep. You can’t find that on every street corner nowadays, but you can find it on every U.S. military base.”
Hammond, who visited Kuwait and Korea as part of a group from FOX Sports and has visited all four U.S. military branches overseas, says he has met countless service members who are NASCAR fans.
“So many of the men and women I’ve met overseas are NASCAR fans who love to ask about what happens in the sport and in the garage,” Hammond said. “I love the fact I can give them a bit of inside knowledge. In turn, I’ve been blessed to receive uniforms and military coins from my visits with service members ranging from generals to privates and corporals. Regardless of their rank, each is so special because they sacrifice equally for our safety.”
Spake looks forward to this weekend more than most other races this year because of the significance of the military backdrop at Charlotte Motor Speedway. She says the opportunity to host FOX Sports’ coverage of Saturday’s NASCAR XFINITY SERIES race (live on FS1 at 1:00 PM ET) is among her favorite assignments of the year.
“Being on the air from Charlotte on Memorial Day Weekend and knowing my grandfather is watching will mean more to me than any other race of the year,” Spake said. “Whenever I am able to represent the military in that environment and tell their stories, I am incredibly proud to know my family is watching. I am so moved to be in the middle of that, with my mind on work but my heart with my grandfather and those who were lost.”
Despite the awe-inspiring pageantry of the Memorial Day tributes and military demonstrations at Charlotte, Hammond is quick to define the significance surrounding this solemn holiday weekend versus that of Veteran’s Day.
“Memorial Day is about those who have given their lives to this country for our freedom and to keep everyone at home safe,” he explained. “It’s not specifically about those we see this weekend. It’s about those in the unknown soldiers’ graves and the unfathomable sacrifices made for this country.”