Though my own military service is winding down (I transferred to the Individual Ready Reserve earlier this year), I’m still a veteran. That’s a part of my identity now, and it will be for the rest of my life. Military service is becoming less common with each American generation. Consequently, not only do fewer Americans know what it’s like to serve, fewer Americans even know people who’ve served. So, on this Veteran’s Day, here’s a brief reflection on just a few ways service has changed my life.
First, there is no sense of pride or purpose quite like the pride or purpose of serving your country. There are moments I’ll never forget: The first time I saluted the flag wearing my country’s uniform . . . shaking hands with a World War II veteran at Fort Benning — just before boarding my own flight to war . . . sitting, terrified, just behind the door gunner of a Chinook helicopter on my first night in Iraq, watching the tracers rounds from a distant firefight. Every veteran has their own indelible memories, and virtually every veteran feels pride and purpose in their own service. In fact, it is that loss of purpose that is often most damaging when vets come home, when their “mission” ends.
Second, service taught me humility. The men I served with demonstrated courage that the vast majority of Americans cannot comprehend. And this courage came from ordinary men. I think it’s comforting for Americans to view combat veterans as somehow different from them — a different kind of person — thus removing any sense of conviction that they, too, could have served — that they, too, could have laid their lives on the line. Yet the men and women I served with downrange were just like me . . . and just like you. They just made different choices. First, to serve their country, and — second — to rise to the occasion when their lives were on the line.
Finally, serving gave me a sadness that I hope I never shake. Every Veteran’s Day — every day, in fact — I think of the men who did not come home. I remember not just the fact of their sacrifice, but also the lives they lived — the families they loved, the jokes they told, their hopes for the future. In my sadness, I remember, and in my sadness I will never forget.
We were not created to serve ourselves or to maximize our own happiness. And Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day remind us of that fact. May it inspire some to not just appreciate others’ sacrifice but to choose to step up, to take their own turn on the wall.
Every generation needs you.