I grew up thinking I understood the military, and thought I knew what it was all about. My father was a career officer, and I was an Army brat. Because my Dad was one of the most honorable, patriotic people I knew (he passed away in 1993), I thought I understood what it meant to be in the military. It took a relocating of my life to learn what I didn’t know.
I was living and working in San Diego, paycheck to paycheck and generally just getting by. Through an online friend, I was offered an opportunity to go take a job in the tactical equipment industry. Besides the interest I have in the products, I was able to cut my cost of living and had an increase in pay. The store is based outside of Fort Campbell, Kentucky; home of the 101st Air Assault Division, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and the 5th Special Forces Group.
When I started, my boss, a former serviceman, told me that our customers “are the real deal heroes. Don’t ever forget it”. I thought I understood what that meant. At that time, I didn’t. Over time, I came to figure out what it was he was telling me. My first realization was when a soldier came in with his battle buddy in a wheelchair. He had an arm in a cast. and what looked like an Erector Set on his right leg. He obviously lost a rather sizable piece of his leg muscle in that leg. I asked him what had happened. “Got hit by a 105 mm IED”. I asked him what the prognosis was. He said it was a little too early to tell, but the doctors said he’d probably walk again. I didn’t know what to say to him then; saying “thank you for your service” seemed hollow and inconsequential. What he said next really blew me away: “It don’t mean nothin'; I’m still alive”. I was awed and humbled. This young man might not walk again, and he just considered it the price of doing the job.
I’ve had the privilege of calling many, many soldiers “friend”. They’re amazingly tolerant of civilians like myself asking stupid, often personal, questions. One of my good friends, a recently retired Company First Sergeant in the 101st named Matt E., allowed me the indulgence of recounting his reasons for joining the Service. There was a time when I would have considered his reasons to be the exception rather than the rule. The more soldiers I meet, the more I realize his answer is not atypical. He said “I wanted to be the man on the wall. I wanted to be the one to stand in the breach and do the job. I didn’t want someone else to be sent in my place.” The more I ask the question, the more often that is the answer.
Through their sacrifice, I’ve come to learn what it means to truly serve. I also understand my father better now than when he was alive. I believe in America’s fighting men and women.
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