Arm in arm, with the armed forces

Veteran's Day will be celebrated Monday, and it has always been a special holiday for Mike and Nancy Carder.

Each has family connections to the military. Her brother was a Marine; her father was in the National Guard. His dad was a World War II pilot, flying C-47s; his maternal grandfather was a medic in World War I; and an uncle was an infantry officer in World War II.

"We had many members of our family in the military," Mike says. "Sort of second nature."

So when it was time to make career decisions, the military seemed like a reasonable option for each of them. Mike joined the Army in 1967, Nancy in 1973. Actually, though, it wasn't her original dream; her first career choice was a little more artistic.

"I wanted to be a ballerina," Nancy admits. "I never dreamed I'd be tying combat boots the same way I was tying toe shoes."

But join the Army each did.

Mike, from Topeka, Kan., enlisted for a three-year stint as a medic, then joined the Reserves. He went to nursing school and moved to Chicago in 1978. He retired in 1997 with the rank of major.

The ballerina thing never happened because the Joliet-raised Nancy chose nursing school instead. She graduated in 1962. In 1973 she joined the Reserves and devoted the next 28 years to the Reserves and active duty, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 2001.

Neither knew a love of the military was going to be responsible for their romance, and life, together.

They met in the 1980s when they were both in the Reserves. Both also were divorced. Mike was 45 and Nancy was 49, the mother of two sons.

At that first meaningful encounter, their mission was to put up a tent.

"It was a field exercise," Mike says. "We were casual co-workers."

It was not love at first sight, he says, just two people with a lot in common. But, eventually, things progressed beyond friendship.

They married in 1990, and even their wedding had a military connection. It was during Operation Desert Storm, and Nancy had been sent to Fort Knox, Ky. Expectations were that she'd be shipping out to the Middle East, so they decided to tie the knot beforehand. Mike, who was working at Highland Park Hospital, drove all night to Kentucky for the nuptials.

The ceremony was memorable. Well, to Mike. Nancy says she was so nervous she doesn't remember most of it.

"We went down to the county seat, Brandenburg, Ky.," Mike recalls. "We set up a time, got to the justice of the peace's office. They took us to his office. In walks this guy with a Western shirt, cowboy boots and blue jeans. He takes his long black robe off the rack and puts it on. Then he opened a desk drawer and took a Styrofoam cup and spit his tobacco plug into it. Then he married us. That was our experience in Mayberry."

Married life has suited them both. Mike, 68, still works full time at Highland Park Hospital in the renal dialysis unit. After she left the military, Nancy, 71, also worked at the hospital, first in the emergency room and later as an instructor for paramedics. She has had a couple of back surgeries and is a breast cancer survivor ("I told him he should have checked my teeth before he married me," she says), but all is well now.

Mike believes their marriage has worked "because we were friends first." Plus, he says, waiting until they were older to marry worked for them.

"In some ways it's good because you know yourself better. … Getting married in your teens, you don't know who you are. Wait. Maybe (not as long as) us, into your 40s, but …"

For fun, Nancy cooks and quilts. They go to craft shows and bookstores (they're both big readers). Mike is also itching to get reacquainted with fishing.

"I think we're separate people with separate identities," Nancy says. "But we have a lot of mutual interests. Most of our spare time is spent with the American Legion, our friends, social activities."

The Legion has been a big part of their lives. They've been members of Evanston Post 42 for 20 years, and both have held local and national Legion posts. Taking care of veterans, new and old, is a duty to them.

"We have a veteran's office in downtown Chicago," Mike says. "The sole responsibility of that office is to coordinate with veterans to make sure they get full benefits … trying to make their transition to VA benefits smoother. There's an emergency fund for young veterans coming back, a legacy fund that provides funds to the children of deceased veterans for their education, programs, scholarships, 'Gifts to the Yanks' for veterans in nursing homes.

"The American Legion is going on 95 years," Mike adds. "Our basis for being is to serve veterans, their families and our country."

A new weekly food pantry for veterans is opening Tuesday at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, 820 S. Damen Ave., Chicago. It will accommodate 150 veterans from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Tuesday. Veterans can receive assistance once a month. For more information or to volunteer at the pantry, email coordinator TaQuoya Kennedy at

Learn more about the American Legion at and

Love lesson

Nancy Carder's advice is simple: "Each person should have their own remote."

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