A few years back, I read a story about a woman who spat in the face of a soldier at the airport. I don’t know the reason why. Maybe she hated war and saw all soldiers as a symbol of that violence.
When I travel in uniform, I wonder what I might have done in that situation. Would I forget for a moment that this woman was once a little girl, and hit her out of anger? Would I wipe the spit off my face, turn my cheek and say, “Here. This one too”? Or would I leave it there, shake the woman’s hand and say, “You’re welcome,” with ironic humor in my throat, the same way our flag sings “You’re welcome” any time a citizen decides to burn it.
Fortunately, this is a rare occurrence nowadays. So rare, in fact, that it was reported in the first place. As they say: Nobody writes a story about airplanes landing safely. It’s actually way more common for me to shake a stranger’s hand, thanking me for my service. It happens so often, I don’t even know how to respond without sounding repetitive in my head.
But I don’t serve because of thank-yous. They’re nice and rewarding, but that’s not what straps my boots in the morning before work.
At seventeen I wrote a check to the U.S. Government. The value? Somewhere between unlimited hours of my time and the cost of my life. The MEPS station called it a contract, and it was. In return I received the American Dream. I’ve paid off my college loans because of the Army. I’ve bought two houses thanks to the V.A. When I take either of my two boys to the emergency room, I don’t lose sleep at night wondering how we might pay for the medical bills.
I knew these benefits lay ahead when I signed. But that’s not why I choose to serve today.
I serve because every time I see a military member reunited with his family, my eyes well up with tears. I serve because our military’s strength is the only true reason wars haven’t been fought on our soil in a century and a half. I serve because others should never be forced to. Because it’s a choice nobody else should make again on our behalf.
There are very few jobs out there in which employees agree to giving their life as a potential cost of doing business. Police and fire fighters are the first that come to mind. But I would place news reporters and photojournalists covering global conflicts high on that list, among others.
When an employer says, “In order to give you this job, can we take your life?” it takes a certain kind of human to say, “Yeah, sure. When can we start?”
Few make this choice. A cost we are willing to pay. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a military grunt or a field cook. I’ve heard a story of a Marine saxophone player who deployed, but the musical instrument they gave him was a 50-cal on a turret, instead. And there came a moment when he had to play it against a child who intended to kill him and all his brothers in arms. The brass he blared played a different song than the ones he learned in school. When that moment came, there was little choice. The choice he had made when he signed the original check was to play music for his country, but now he had to take a life, or give his own.
I’ve actually heard (very few) people say that because military members chose to serve, that there’s nothing special about what they do. There should be no sympathy for the life they chose to live. As if all choices were created equal.
“Nobody forced them to sign. It’s not like they were drafted!”
No. My generation of Soldiers was not drafted. But neither were you. And that’s the point. One percent wears the uniform so that ninety-nine doesn’t have to. We assume one hundred percent of the burden for whatever political decisions the rest of the country decides to make. We’re not fighting our own wars. We’re fighting yours for you. But we serve so you can make America better: through arts, teaching, science, engineering, discovery, business, transportation, social services … All of those matter. Every job we do matters. But only some require life as a deposit that may or may not be refundable to you at the end of your career.
I serve so that you, too, can have your own American Dream.
We chose so that you might have a choice. We chose, so that you may continue to choose. For the rest of your life. Even if our lives should expire long before yours.