(This article by Judy Christie originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Military Officer, a magazine available to all MOAA Premium and Life members. Learn more about the magazine here; learn more about joining MOAA here.)
In 1991, when Navy Lt. Cmdr. G. Graham Van Hook was a boy, his father, a Navy captain at sea, videotaped himself reading classic stories such as Black Beauty and Treasure Island and mailed the tapes and the books to his son.
“It gave [me] a connection to my father,” G. Graham Van Hook said in an interview from Florida, where he is stationed. “I could hear his voice and his personality. It still means a lot to me.”
The opportunity for now-retired Capt. Gordon Evans Van Hook came from United Through Reading, a nonprofit organization that has delivered stories for more than 2.4 million military family members since 1989.
“We are focused on our mission to connect military families through the power of reading,” said Sally Zoll, CEO of United Through Reading.
With the addition of an app that works with mobile devices, the program increased the number of stories delivered last year by 47%, Zoll said.
Stories can be recorded with the app or by servicemembers before or during deployment from one of 285 story stations around the world, and copies of the books are mailed home for the children. When Van Hook deployed to the Middle East on a destroyer in 2018 and a cruiser in 2019, he continued the United Through Reading tradition with his son Jackson, age 2.
“He loves books and always gets excited to get a new one in the mail,” said Graham’s wife, Katie Van Hook, who works from home for an accounting firm. “It was so nice for Graham to be part of the bedtime routine. It was like having someone here parenting with me.”
After this summer’s birth of their daughter, Charley, Graham Van Hook will captain a ship in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific for three months. He plans to video himself reading stories for his children and give sailors on board the opportunity, too.
Zoll hears many moving stories about the power of the recordings for children of all ages. A father whose homecoming was delayed had to tell his daughter, 18, he would miss her high school graduation — but surprised her with a recording of himself reading Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss.
The DVD “saved the day,” her mother told Zoll, who knows the emotional impact of stories.
Katie Van Hook agrees.
“I just wanted Jackson to be able to hear Graham’s voice.”
How to Help
With the aid of volunteers, donations, and grants, United Through
Reading helped military family members record 12,189 stories last
year. READiness 365, a program launched in May, promotes reading each day of the year. For ways to volunteer or donate, go to www.unitedthroughreading.org.
Judy Christie is a writer and book author based in Colorado.