Today is the 234th birthday of the United States Marine Corps. November 10th, 1775 – a date drilled into my head by a bunch of screaming sergeants many years ago. At the age of 17, with the consent of my parents, I signed up for the USMC reserves, going to boot camp that summer after my freshman year of college. I served eight years, two of which were in what they call the “IRR” or inactive ready reserve, about a year and a half of which were on active duty for training, or during the first Gulf war when I was activated. The remainder of that time, I spent doing monthly drills at our reserve base in Waco, TX.
My point here is not to toot my own horn for my small amount of uniformed service. Quite to the contrary, I want to tell you that I spent the first 3 years of my time with a bad attitude. I joined near the end of the Cold War, hoping to “kill a commie for mommy.” I bitched and moaned, broke rules, and learned everything the hard way. I never was deployed into a war zone, though I would have gone if they had asked – and there were times when I thought that was imminent. My job, or “M.O.S.” as it’s called in the Marines was 2145 – Tank Automotive Mechanic. Before I signed up, I had worked in computers, and scored very well on my tests. So they put me to work fixing M-60 main battle tanks. It was a tough job for a skinny twerp like me, carrying a tool box that weighed nearly as much as I did. Everything about tanks is heavy, difficult, and dangerous. And yet I know it could have been worse. I often had wondered what it might be like to do my job while under fire. Would I have been able to leave the relative safety of my M-88 tank retriever vehicle and go rig up a tow bar to evacuate a disabled or shot-up tank?
I learned many life lessons in the Marine Corps, some of which make me swell with pride, and others of which make me shrink back in shame. I made it up to the rank of sergeant, but nearly got busted down a couple of times along the way. But looking back upon my time in service, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
One of the most important things I learned about in my service in the Marine Corps was the concept of sacrifice. Mine was a little one – a couple of years derailed from my college aspirations. I was a young punk who didn’t appreciate it anyway. I needed the time on active duty, even though I resented it.
No, the sacrifice I’m talking about is bigger. What I learned is that it takes a lot for someone to set aside their fears, and their personal aspirations to give singular focus on doing what their commanders order them to do – in service of our nation’s defense and our foreign policy goals. I worked with many people who gave so much, and I am better off having known them.
I think about the extreme amount of sacrifice by our current Marines and soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and God only knows where else on Earth that operations are currently under way that we may not even know about, but that hopefully keep us all a little safer.
I think about the families of those who serve, and who are deployed over and over again to dangerous areas. I think about children who endure the prolonged absence of their fathers or mothers who serve a cause even greater.
I think about the generations of Americans who have answered the call to serve, whether for personal reasons, to prove something, for college money, for patriotism, or just to kick some ass.
I think of those who were black, and served our country in segregated units before desegregation, even though they didn't have the same freedoms as their white counterparts. And I think of those who were and still are gay or lesbian and serving now even while denying their own identity - and even as they still lack the same civil rights as their straight counterparts.
I think about those who signed up in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, knowing they would go in harm’s way. I think of all of those who were drafted in the Vietnam era and sent to fight a war that many of them felt was wrong.
I think about how many of them have been seriously injured or killed, whether in combat, by act of terrorism, by friendly fire, by accident, or as inexplicably as happened this past week in Fort Hood.
I think about those who served in World War II, fighting fascism on two fronts, in many cases sacrificing all. I think about my Uncle Sonny, among those who liberated a Nazi prison camp. I think of the horrible and inhumane things they must have seen, and the triumph of humanity it must have taken to overcome and defeat it.
But one thing I want to point out is this: Whether in war time or peacetime; whether in combat, or in the rear; whether the action was right or wrong; whether the action was in defense or offense; and whether or not our Marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen personally agreed or disagreed with how things were done – we are all better off for their service.
What keeps America strong, militarily only has a little to do with technology or economic power. What keeps America’s enemies at bay is that we have people who will serve. We have troops who will go where they are told and follow the orders of our Commander in Chief – whoever that may be at the time. Because of their strength, and their willingness to sacrifice even their lives if asked, we are all better off. Because of our Veterans, who have served as the tool of last resort in the tool chest of our civilian leadership’s arsenal, we are still free.
So, on Veteran’s day this year, I ask you to do two little things: First, take a moment to reflect on how much we have asked of our military over the years, and how much our veterans have given. Second, reach out and thank a veteran for their service and sacrifice. Seriously, it’s the least we can do.