• Michigan

Grandville hockey player to continue family history of serving his country

By: Steve Vedder, January 20, 2018, 9:49 am

Grandville – Enlisting in the U.S. Air Force made perfect sense to Jake Westra.

Considering a strong family history that stretches back more than seven decades in three different branches of the military, the Grandville senior hockey player believes it’s only natural that his initial career decision involved serving his country.

The only stipulation that Westra attached before enlisting in the Air Force was that it be a different path than taken by his father, an older brother, two grandfathers, a great grandfather and great uncle. The latter two were shot on the same day in a World War II battle in New Guinea, including one who was killed. In all, a dozen members of his parents’ families have served in the United States Marines, Army and Navy since the 1940s.

Actually, joining the military wasn’t exactly Westra’s top choice. But after his brother Travis, joined the Marines in 2016, Westra began to see how enlisting would eventually lead him to his ultimate ambition: of becoming a game warden.  He reasoned that by signing a contract with the Air Force that included four years active and four years reserve duty, he would receive the training and eventually have the financial means to become a game warden.

When you combine that thinking and the long family history in the military, Westra said he knew he made the right move in joining the Air Force. He’ll enter the service shortly after graduation in June.

"It wasn’t an easy decision to sign away your life for eight years of your life. It took a lot of thinking," Westra said. "I thought about joining the army, but they wanted a quick decision. I think the reaction (of friends) was, ‘You’re going in the military?’ when a lot of them are going off to college. It’s completely different."

The family history dates back at least until World War II when his great uncle Robert Vorenkamp and his grandfather Donald Vorenkamp fought with the Army’s "Red Arrow" division on New Guinea. Both were shot on the same day, with Robert being killed.

Since then, Westra’s grandfathers Richard Vorenkamp and James Westra both enter the U.S. Navy, his father Shawn enlist in the navy and Travis become a Marine infantry mortar man stationed at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune.

Westra admits he chose the Air Force to stand apart from family history.

"Any branch is going to take a lot of work," he said. "It’s like playing hockey. You just work hard and don’t get down on yourself. You just learn to keep going.

"There’s a lot of history in my family and (joining) was definitely something I took my time over. But it’ll keep me out of trouble. I’m excited about it. But, yeah, it’s something you could be nervous about."

Westra said he wants to be a military policeman. He knows he could be assigned virtually anywhere in the world from South Korea and Japan to the Middle East or maybe the continental U.S.

Westra said the same traits which have made him a defenseman who takes a regular turn on a Bulldog team which has made the Division I semifinals each of the last four seasons while compiling a West Michigan-best 80-23-4 mark since 2015, will lead him to success in the military.

"Obviously our goal is to win a state championship and we have history in trying to do that," said Westra, who has helped the Bulldogs to a 14-1 mark this season and a No. 9 ranking in State Champs’ top 25. "We believe we have a good chance."

Grandville coach Joel Breazeale said Westra epitomizes the Bulldog program. He understands his role and works hard to fill it.

"He’s a ‘Steady Eddie’," Breazeale said. "He’s a great testament to what I call continual perseverance. All our kids work to leave the program in better shape. They want to leave a legacy for the next players."

As for the family’s reaction to adding to the military heritage, Jenni Westra said she is proud of her son’s decision to serve.

"We’ve always talked about the military around here because my husband was in the navy and he talks about it," she said. "I think Jake knew what he wanted to do and we’re very proud of him. There aren’t a lot of kids today who step up like that."