Growing up in a small town in Southern Illinois, I learned the importance of three holidays: Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Veterans Day. The town had many veterans from World War II and Vietnam. These holidays weren’t about being out of school, fireworks or simply putting up an American flag. They were about respect and honor, and these were times to share stories. As a child, you’re entertained by stories of battle, wartime life and sacrifices. But as you get older, you begin to understand how meaningful these stories are — full of regret and pride. For some veterans, it’s a form of therapy to talk about the past.
One of my earliest memories was hearing my great-grandfather talk about his service during World War I while stationed in France. While my great-grandfather’s accounts were brief, my grandfather was more open about sharing his stories. Mick Sawalich enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II at just 16 years old. He served aboard the Liberty Ship AK-70 Crater. I listened to his stories about service and the pride he had for the U.S. Navy for most of my life until he passed away in 2013.
In the late ‘80s, my grandfather started an annual reunion with his former shipmates. I went to four or five of them over the years. Each one got smaller and smaller as our greatest generation also shrunk. It was at these meetings that I fully understood these weren’t just stories – this was their life. Each and every veteran carries their war story, but the selflessness, pride and service to their country was at their core – it’s who they were. These experiences turned boys into men, and it was what made them into the people they grew up to be. No matter what they accomplished professionally, outside of their families, their service to our country was what they were most proud of.
Today, as President of Starkey Hearing Technologies, I carry these memories with me, and I remember how much they meant to my grandfather. One of the ways I honor him, and all of our veterans, is through the work we do at Starkey to promote hearing health and to innovate hearing loss solutions.
The biggest health issue our active military personnel and veterans face is one most don’t even think of – hearing loss. Hearing protection was not a priority during the World Wars or Vietnam. But today, it’s taken seriously by our Department of Defense, and there are growing calls for better technology and products. Whether from combat or aging, the issue of hearing loss continues to grow. I’m proud to lead an American-owned company that partners with Veterans Affairs. Not only do we provide state-of-the-art hearing aids to active and non-active military personnel, but we continue working on innovative hearing protection solutions for the men and women currently serving our nation. We’re also working to learn more about hearing health and social engagement for our aging veterans.
In my role at Starkey, working with our VA gives me a sense of pride. It’s doing what I can to pay respect to my grandfather and to so many veterans who served before and after him. Starkey strives to make the best products to protect our active soldiers’ hearing so they don’t need our products for service-related incidents. If they need us later in life because of active aging or health-related hearing loss, we are ready to serve by providing access to advanced technology to those who cared for and served our country.
Through sharing their experiences, the greatest generation didn’t let the reality of war, and it’s consequences, fall into darkness over the last 30 years. They taught us that freedom is not free. It comes with sacrifice. At Starkey, it’s our job to ensure veterans’ stories are heard by keeping the connection from generation to generation strong through better hearing health and technology.