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A family of service

on November 11, 2010

In January of 2004, James Lyons asked his parents, Michael and Marva Lyons, to sit down for a family meeting.

“It was the only time I uttered those words in my life,” James says. “I will never forget: My mother was in the kitchen; my dad was in there with her.”

James wanted to tell them that he’d made a decision: He was leaving school because he’d enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.

Marva stood at the sink where she was washing dishes and scrubbed the same plate over and over.

“After she washed those dishes, she cried for five days,” Michael remembers.

“She was mad,” James says. “She didn’t talk to me for three weeks.”

“It wasn’t that it was a negative thing. But it just caught us so off guard. I wasn’t expecting it,” Marva says. “We raise them to be independent thinkers, but when they exercise that you want to reel it all in, reel them back in.”

Marva remembers the shock, but also the emotion that took over as James prepared for boot camp: pride.

James Lyons spent five years in the US Marine Corps. Now, he has his eyes set on law school.

“It was that proud mama feeling settling in,” she says, “and from that point forward, it kept growing till we got to boot camp graduation.”

There’s a legacy of military service in the Lyons family. Both Michael’s and Marva’s fathers served in World War II, and Michael’s grandfather served before that. Michael was drafted in 1972 while he was a student at UC Berkeley and enlisted in the Air Force. He was stationed in upstate New York, where he was trained as an electronics technician and worked on FB 111 bombers.

It wasn’t the direction he had planned, but it shaped the course of his life. After leaving the Air Force in 1976, he started a career at the Chevron refinery in Richmond as a technician, using the skills he was taught in the service. He still works there today.

James didn’t follow his father’s lead and join the Air Force because he wanted the more demanding path of the Marines. But he ended up doing much the same work as his father, as an aviation electrician.

James graduated high school at 16. A voracious reader, he’s especially fond of Gandhi, Tolstoy, and V.S. Naipaul.

He’d always wanted to join the military, he said, inspired by his father’s example and a sense of duty. “I was once told that the highest form of citizenship was to serve in the military,” he says.

But he was too young when he graduated high school, so he started taking classes at Diablo Valley College. After two years there, he felt he was not living up to his potential and earning the grades he should.

“I knew there was more discipline that I needed,” he says.

James learned that discipline in his five years as a Marine. Now he’s back in school, taking courses at Contra Costa Community College. He plans to transfer and finish his bachelors in sociology or rhetoric, then pursue a law degree.

“My future is what I consider every morning when I wake up,” he says. “The Marine Corps really helped with that. Make a three, five and seven year plan for yourself and figure out how to get there.”

Marva serves in her own way. Shortly after James became a Marine, she said found herself looking for a community that was doing something to show support for the troops, but found nothing in Richmond.

“I said, ‘James can’t be the only young person in our community that is in the military,’” she recalls. So she founded Their Angels, an organization that ships donated items to troops all over the world.

"When moms are on a mission, we can do wonderful things," says Marva Lyons, who runs Their Angels, an organization that has shipped over 32,000 packages to service members across the world, with her husband.

Since 2004, Their Angels has packed boxes on the first Saturday of every month at Hilltop Church of Christ. People come from all over the Bay Area to pitch in. The organization has packed over 32,000 civilian rations—packages that contain treats, games, and personal care products as well as a note of encouragement and appreciation.

Marva says veterans are treated better now than they were in the 1970s, when soldiers returning from the Vietnam War were ignored, or demonized. Today, she says that there are better services available, and more recognition of the needs of returning troops and their families. But she also says that there’s a general apathy.

“A lot of what people feel after we get out is isolation because you feel like people just don’t care,” James says. “A lot of people don’t care or don’t think about that we’ve been through traumatic experiences.”

James didn’t fight in Iraq or Afghanistan: He was stationed in Japan and North Carolina, but he says that there is carryover from his friends that did.

“You kind of live vicariously through the people who’ve gone to Iraq and Afghanistan. You carry some of that baggage with you,” he says.

Young people especially do not recognize the sacrifices that veterans have made for them, James says.

“I’ll probably go the entire [Veterans] Day. I have two classes, and no one will mention anything about veterans.” He says, “We want people to observe that there’s good men and women willing to go into harms way on behalf of them.”

For Marva and Michael, Veterans Day is a chance to honor veterans and thank them for their service on the other 364 days of the year.


  1. Godlieb on November 11, 2010 at 10:21 pm


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