For the Purvis family, 5 generations of service to country

Posted November 25

— The Purvis family military story does not involve combat or decorations for valor. There are no dramatic tales of battlefield heroism passed through the generations.

It is a quiet story, a story of deep-running love of country, as remarkable as it is ordinary. For five generations — 130 years — a Purvis has served in the military. Russell Purvis was the first; a decade after the Civil War, he joined the U.S. Navy, where he spent six years. Whatever stories he harbored have long since been lost. The only thing that remains of his memory is a tintype on a shelf in a Spotsylvania County living room and the legacy of starting it all.

His son, also named Russell, came after, giving eight years to the Navy around the turn of the 20th century, when the U.S. was engaged in the short-lived Spanish — American War and an armed conflict in the Philippines.

There is a photo of him, too, in black and white. He wears a sailor uniform and raises his chin a little as he looks into the camera.

That makes two generations.

Rodger Purvis made three, when in 1949 he followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and also joined the Navy.

But his heart belonged to the sky, not the sea.

He'd saved up enough money by age 18 to buy his first airplane. By the end of his military career, he'd given four years to the Navy and another 32 to the Air Force and Air National Guard, serving through Korea and Vietnam as a flight engineer aboard refueling planes. He racked up nearly 15,000 flight hours.

It was no surprise that Rodger Purvis wanted his own son, Richard, to become a pilot in the military.

It is Richard's Spotsylvania home where those family photos rest upon a shelf in a room where the walls are filled with images of the planes his father loved so much.

But Richard's heart belonged on the field — a football field.

As a boy he'd worn his father's oversized bomber jacket and spent countless hours strapped in beside him in his Piper Clipper.

He even joined his father on weekends at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall near their home in Pittsburgh, but Richard chose football.

"It broke his heart," Richard said.

But Rodger Purvis would not mourn for very long. Richard played football in college for a year, then spent some time as a semi-professional.

"Once I realized I couldn't play pro football, I said, 'I'm going to join the Navy,' " he said.

His father urged him to get a degree and join the military as an officer.

Richard instead enlisted in the Navy in 1983, in the midst of the Cold War.

And although he didn't become a pilot, his career as a sailor would be mostly in the air.

Richard, the fourth generation of Purvis' to serve his country, spent 22 years as an aviation warfare systems operator, or AW for short. Today, they are called Naval aircrewman.

By the time he retired, he'd tracked icebergs in the Arctic Circle and gathered intelligence on submarines, deciding whether they were friends or foes.

He still remembers the night he tracked a Typhoon, an elusive, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine that belonged to the Russians.

His was one of only two crews to accomplish such a feat, he said.

Of all his years in the Navy, "that probably is my proudest moment."

But he loved every day, and loved the camaraderie of military service.

Those he worked with felt more like extended family than coworkers.

"When I first started out, I heard all these stories about how great it was," Richard said.

He didn't believe them.

Now, he said, he's proof that it was even better.

"These new AWs couldn't find a submarine in a box," he joked.

These days, Richard works for the National Park Service as a waterworks operator.

He still wears his flight jacket. He has added to the walls and shelves of his home a fifth generation of Purvis veterans.

There is his daughter, Grace, a member of the Army Reserves, and son Kollin, who spent 2 1/2 years in the Air Force.

This past Memorial Day, he contemplated erecting a flagpole in his front yard.

But it didn't seem like quite enough.

So he thought about it, and sketched out a few ideas, and got Kollin's help.

Signs for Anything, a Spotsylvania business, delivered the final product.

"Thumbs Up For Our Military Troops!" the big, double-sided sign says across the front.

It includes seals from every service branch and a giant hand giving a thumbs-up. An American flag also flies from it.


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