“Happy Veteran’s Day, Dad!” said Declan. “Were you in the war? I’m glad you’re not dead.” Note to self–Declan should write greeting cards. “Mom, do we have to get him a gift?” he asked.
“No. This is an appreciation holiday, not a gift holiday,” I said.
“I can’t believe Grandpa drove a tank! He’s 67 years old!”
“He’s not driving a tank now. It was when he was in the Army.” It’s a good thing he’s not driving a tank now. He looks at nature on the side of the road as he’s driving. At least he doesn’t text and drive.
“Mom, were you a soldier?” Declan asked.
“No. I was a wimp.”
Two decades prior…
“You’re not ready to go,” said the Staff Sergeant.
I was planning on being a Marine. I’d go to Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia, and if my fortunes went well, be assigned to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.
My recruiter wanted me to graduate college early and go–I had enough credits after junior year. The Staff Sergeant, who had the privilege of seeing me at 6AM morning exercises, didn’t agree.
“You need to take this extra year to get mentally ready and in shape.”
I was a non-scholarship Marine Corps Midshipman in the Reserve Officer Training Corp. I’d decided late, so I missed the application process, but even if I hadn’t, ROTC gave scholarships to people more physics-calculus oriented than me. I was liberal arts.
The “non-scholarship” part meant I had to major in waitressing to afford college and I couldn’t keep up with the drills, classes, and requirements of the Unit.
There was another option–I could be dismissed from the Unit and sign on with a program that didn’t require an in-school time commitment. I was given a recruiter out of Buffalo, New York–a captain in charge of making me into a Marine. The Staff Sergeant let me participate in activities and physical training whenever I wasn’t working.
“You have enough credits to graduate,” said the Captain. I’d overloaded every semester, both in classes and in work. “You can sign on after this semester.”
The Staff Sergeant didn’t agree, but even though non-commissioned officers run the military, he would never disagree, only suggest. When a NCO “suggests,” the world better listen. Battles have been won or lives lost based on whether generals heard.
“I know the Captain wants you to graduate early and go,” said the Staff Sergeant. “I’d never disagree with the Captain, so we didn’t have this conversation, but you’re not ready.”
Marine Corps Officer Candidate School is no joke. The best of the best graduate. I wasn’t ready. I had a friend who broke her arm during OCS and got recycled. She had to do the whole thing again, and she had been ready.
I spent my senior year working and getting ready, then my 21st birthday in Buffalo at MEPS–the Military Entrance Processing Station–where I got a mugshot so bad even a DMV photographer would be jealous and a “Happy birthday” invasive exam I can never mention again.
I was looking forward to language school–I was a Russian major–but the Captain suggested Arabic was on the table. I wasn’t sure why. Nothing was certain in the Corps. The Marine Corps doesn’t promise jobs. You are a Marine first and serve where the Corps needs you. The Marine Corps knows best.
It didn’t matter. I chickened out in the end.
There’s one thing that separated me from my military friends and family who deserve to be honored every Veteran’s Day–and every day, in fact. That was courage to go when duty called.
Courage is what makes people do the right thing in the moment of truth, even when they can get away with doing much less.
I had a dozen doubts and face-saving excuses at the time… I had to go abroad to write my thesis, I got a job offer when I came home, my knee hurt, maybe I wasn’t ready after all…
But the real truth is this–I found an easier path. The lesson: everyone has the same doubts and fears. The hero acts when the rest of us make excuses.
I was not a hero.
It’s hard to stretch the mind, body, and soul when failure is a real option. A hero knows this and makes the stretch anyway, regardless of what happens in the end.
I’m teaching now. I ask students to stand for the Pledge. I have some who don’t pledge for religious reasons, “I love this country but it’s like a prayer–I should only pray to God.” Fair enough. It’s the students who continue their conversation that I address.
“Give a moment of thanks for our friends and family members who serve and have served so you can have this conversation with your friends, blow off my homework, and complain about your rights…maybe someday you will be serving.”
They stand. Some with respect, some reluctantly.
They’re not thanking me. I didn’t have the courage to go. They are thanking he girl who was recycled, the grandpa who drove the tank, the Staff Sergeant and Captain who made Marines to keep us safe, and the child of the soldier who never came home.
And all those whose stories we never hear.
They are thanking them.
And I am, too.
If you want to read something for Veteran’s Day, Brandon Webb’s books are important–he tells those stories that need to be told. Freedom isn’t free, these are the stories of the men and women who make my way of life possible. His tribute to his fellow SEALS, Among Heroes, should be required reading for every American.[Photo Credit: Department of Defense: “Master Sgt. Roger Richardson holds an American flag atop a C-130 Hercules, tail number 63-7865, Nov. 13 in Southwest Asia.”]