Reflecting on Military Service

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Jason Baker is a not-as-regular-as-he’d-like (and always welcome) contributor to Pantsuit Politics and a Major in the United States Air Force.  He recently shared a Veteran’s Day message for a community event at his old high school and has detailed that message here. His opinions are his own, and do not reflect the views of the United States Air Force or Department of Defense. If you’re interested in national security and foreign policy issues from a nuanced (although sometimes sarcastic) point of view and how citizens can engage, follow him on Twitter @jbbakes3

I had been back in the gym a couple of times for basketball games since I graduated 15 years ago; but this would be the first time I was there for any kind of ceremony or assembly. I listened as one of the current high school seniors introduced me. I watched as 30 community veterans, roughly 400 students, and a couple dozen teachers (many of whom had taught me) processed the words I too was trying to put in perspective.

“He has flown over 1200 hours, including over 600 in combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.”

If you didn’t notice from the numbers above, I went to a very small high school.  Having grown up a farm kid from such a small school, I still can’t believe some of the things I’ve seen and done. I stopped thinking about what I was planning to say, and started wondering what they thought I was going to say.

I stepped up to the podium to some polite applause, thanked my wife and family for being there and acknowledged some teachers I’d had who played such an important role in who I am today. I thanked the veterans in attendance, and briefly discussed the history and importance of Veteran’s Day. Soon I was in the meat of my address though; alluding to those I know who have struggled after seeing the realities of war:

“Those men and so many like them have real struggles after their service is done, and we need to be there not just to thank them, but to talk to them, to hear them, to help them.  Part of that is staying engaged, knowing what they were fighting for, and wanting the best for them.”

I noticed some teachers taking a closer look now, and even some of the students. Perhaps they expected a recruiting speech, or some grand stories of glory in battle. To be sure, I referenced the wars our veterans have fought to gain our freedom, keep a country together, and protect us from threats abroad. That was not my overall thesis on this day as I continued:

“When you include those that have served, and are currently serving, Veteran’s make up 7.3% of the American population, with less than 1% of the population currently serving.”

“Veterans are represented by every corner of America, and every walk of life. We are men and women from every race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, political leaning, and socio-economic background.” 

“While we represent just 7% of the country’s population, we are clearly the most diverse group of people in the nation.  And BECAUSE of this, and not in spite of it, we are the best at what we do.”

I didn’t need my notes anymore at this point. For weeks, my wife heard me rehearse this portion out loud while we went for walks around the neighborhood.  

“That’s something I want people to take notice of in these times we live in - these times where arguing and hating seems to come easier than discussion and cooperation. People seem to argue about what patriotism means, or how a “real American” should think or act.” 

“Veterans understand that people of different backgrounds, and different views can still respect each other when working together towards a common goal.”

Anyone who has ever given a speech to more than a small group of people has worried before and during if their message is being received and taken to heart. I was delighted to see the head nods as I closed the speech by discussing a recent trip to Washington D.C. I talked about the optimism and pride I have anytime I am in the capital, regardless of the current political environment.  

“My wife and I also visited Arlington National Cemetery where her grandmother, a WW2 field nurse, is interred.  The monuments and buildings, and what they stand for, on one side of the river are protected by the kinds of men and women laying at rest on the other side”.

“And those people, are supported and cared for by all of you. We owe them all a debt of gratitude for all they have done and will do---but we also owe them being an engaged citizenry that is informed, and willing to engage with its country to do what is best for them”.  

As we move away from another Veteran’s Day, and into that period where many won’t think about it until Memorial Day, remember that supporting the troops is more than a magnet on the back of your car. Or as President Kennedy said:

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

Thank you, fellow veterans, for your service…and thank you, fellow citizens, for your support.