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Last night, I went on a short adventure that got me to thinking about my time in the military. We were having dinner with friends when we learned that their son, in his 20s, was stuck out on a dirt road somewhere and needed help. They had contacted another friend, Mick, who lived nearby, and we also ventured out to help. When we arrived, Mick was on the scene, but he was surprised to see me. I said “I can’t let a Navy man have all the fun!” Later that evening, I was thinking about the ribbing that guys give each other when they’ve served in different branches. But I also thought about the bonds that exist almost immediately between most men, once they learn that each other served.
In my case, I spent four years Active Duty in the Army, as a tanker. I was fortunate to spend most of that time in Europe and never ended up in the Gulf. I regularly think about the time that has passed since I got out, compared to how long I was alive before I joined. I was 18 when I joined, and nearly 25 years have passed since I got out. I think about those numbers a lot — which I’ve always thought was odd — until last night, when it hit me why it is important to me. The four years I spent in the Army are a pivot time for my life in many ways. Up until then, those years were filled with points of adversity that were the greatest I’d faced in my short life. I met different kinds of people. I lost a lot of weight and became physically fit. I did a lot of things that most people would never do. I saw concentration camps close up. I visited cities like Paris and Frankfurt. And I was a part of a long tradition that went all the way back to George Washington.
I have a lot of conflicting thoughts about serving the Army, however. The greatest of which is the sense of honor. I wasn’t the best soldier I could have been. I was young and impetuous. I didn’t listen to great leaders who tried to mold me. Almost from the moment I joined, I began counting down the days until I would get out. That isn’t honorable. And to this day I am uncomfortable when people thank me for my service, because there were better men than me who served along side me, some of whom went to war. They are the ones who should be thanked. Once, in Arlington National Cemetery, a World War II veteran shook my hand and thanked me for my service. I was flabbergasted.
Yet still, I did something that many able-bodied men do not do. I chose, of my own free will, to put on the uniform. And there is something honorable in that. That does set me apart in some way that I cannot fully explain nor understand. I remember when I out-processed through Fort Dix, New Jersey. It’s the Army, and you do the whole thing the Army way, in a group, with lots of paperwork, and standing around waiting. Toward the end, 20 or 30 of us were sitting in a briefing room, waiting for whatever was the next step. A sergeant came in the room, and told everyone that he was going to read a list of names. And when he was done, anyone who’s name was not on the list was to get up, and leave the room, and await further instructions.
After the names were read, less than half the men and women remained in the room. He told us to stand up. Then he explained: “You are the ones who have fulfilled your commitment. You are the ones who kept your word. All of you are getting out honorable. Not because of a medical issue, or a discipline issue. You are the heroes.” Then he gave us each an Army pin, which is never worn on a uniform, but is still the award that I cherish the most. It isn’t lost on me that the sergeant read out the names of the people who stayed in the room. He didn’t give those others the honor of having their names read aloud in that setting.
And that is what sets us apart, I think. Having served honorably in any capacity, having done what you set out to do, makes you someone special. There is a competing sense of honor and gratitude that I think most of us feel. We do feel that sense of pride for having served. But we are also grateful that we were privileged to participate in the United State’s great military tradition. When we walk down the street, we sort of feel that people ought to get our of our way, because we are the warriors. Yet that is tempered by the knowledge that these are the people we swore to protect, and that greater men and women than us have walked the same path. It’s an odd sense of dichotomy that, for me at least, has never gone away and is never fully understood.