You can’t serve our nation in uniform without gaining a deeper appreciation for what our country stands for and how special it really is. Regardless of how patriotic you are as that first day arrives, wearing your military uniform outside the gates of training and into the public spotlight bears a special burden as all eyes are upon you. You represent the defense of so many and so much. A willingness–perhaps the first time in your life–to put something above yourself. At all cost to you and your family. I remember one very glaring memory, amongst many in a career spanning twenty-four years on active-duty, when I came to the realization that military service to our nation comes with a steep price…the ultimate sacrifice. A dangerous business indeed.
It was during the mid 90s, as I graduated from the U.S. Air Force’s aircrew survival school at Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington state. Dozens of us young pilots and navigators ventured over to the Officer’s Club to celebrate, relax and contemplate all that we’d endured over those last few weeks: Eluding capture from “the enemy” for days in the deep woods of the Pacific Northwest, staying mentally strong during the prisoner of war encampment and digesting the personal testimony from those who had been captured, beaten and held for days, months and years in Iraq and Vietnam.
The profession I’d chosen could be a deadly game. The enemy played for keeps I kept reminding myself at survival training. Everything they were teaching us was to help keep us alive and to stay as healthy as possible–both mentally and physically.
One moment at survival training stands out above all the others. Maybe it’s because it’s a positive memory. Or maybe it’s because when the chips are down in combat or in life, we must remember the bigger picture to keep the faith. To endure and stay in the game, not fold. I don’t know. But I do know that when Lee Greenwood’s hit song “God Bless the U.S.A.” started playing in that bar room that last night the chatter died down immediately. Everyone glanced around. The bar stools spun around towards the dance floor. Soon a few “cheerful” souls found their liquid courage and began to sing the patriotic tune out loud. Very loud. Quickly and without prompting, the whole place stood up and sang, everyone with their arms draped over the shoulder of the person next to them.
That song encapsulated why we were all there. How each of us, from every corner of the United States of America, had been brought together by our love our country…and a strong desire to serve. A willingness to risk it all for a way of life that is not only dreamt about in many countries, but never quite achieved elsewhere.
Thank you to all the veterans who came before me, whether modeling the Greatest Generation in WWII, stopping the advance of Communism in Korea or keeping your head held high after Vietnam. Thanks also to the men and women serving today in wartime, who defend our Constitution and way of life from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Freedom isn’t free. And a grateful nation knows that.
© 2016, Patrick. All rights reserved.
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