Saturday, February 19, 2011

All the Right Reasons

Growing up in a middle-class community and therefore a relatively stable economic environment, the pursuit of money was never on my mind. I had the luxury of not having to worry about money, not because my family had so much of it but because it was never a priority that I learned to value. More important to my family were individual goals set apart from monetary gain that would mean something beyond worldly possessions. Money was not something to be obtained for pleasure purposes but rather to be earned as a mandatory requirement to take care of ones family.

My ambitions eclipsed petty desires for fancy boats, mansions or extravagant gifts. My parents instilled in me a sense of self-pride but also an obligation to enable others and to share my talents with the world for the better. As I looked at colleges, never did the idea of "career salary" even come up in discussion. It was never a determining factor for my choice of a major nor did it register in my mind as to what vocation I would choose. Rather, my parents told me that they would allow me to go to any school in the country and study anything that made me happy. This set the foundation for why I joined the military. It wasn't for prestige or to fulfill a lifelong dream of some kind. It wasn't even to check some box off from my bucket list. The reasons were simple. I served because I wanted to represent my country in the noble profession of arms and defend my country with my God-give talent. The rest (so I hoped) would take care of itself.

Looking back nearly six years from when I started this journey of my life where I have given my country some of my "best years," I often wonder why I am still serving. Is it for the same reasons? Like most 19 year olds I was naive and wide-eyed. I believed that the world was at the palm of my hands and that my influence was a lot greater than I would find out down the road. I no longer see my reasons for staying matching my reasons for joining. It has become less about the mission, the sense of duty and patriotism than it has been about money. Now, I regularly check my mutual funds, Roth IRA, direct deposits and am more meticulous about what items I claim on my travel vouchers then I did when I was a 2nd Lieutenant and never even checked my banking account. Is my service more about collecting a pay check? I'm still where I am mostly because of the service commitment that I incurred upon graduation from graduate school which the AF helped fund. Aside from that, my list for staying has been getting increasingly smaller. I often think that the most selfless act I could make would be to step aside and allow the next generation carry on the mission. I'm also staying because unlike the infamous theatrical banner on the aircraft carrier which President Bush landed on, I don't believe the mission is accomplished. Instead, I know there is unfinished "business" and I would like to be part of ensuring our Nation gets closer to closing out our commitments abroad.

It doesn't take a sociologist to determine that humans surround themselves with like-minded people. Take a look at your friends and acquaintances and you will find that many of them hold similar values, beliefs and philosophies. My friends are much the same. Like me, many of my friends have chosen a profession of service because they feel the need to give back. Unlike me, many of them are some of the smartest and bravest individuals on the planet. Take for instance my friend Will Taylor who I had gone to Intel officer school with. Several years ago he cross-commissioned and is now an Army infantry officer in charge of a platoon. A few months ago he got back from a 15 month deployment to Iraq with his platoon where he was their commanding officer. He probably could have sat behind a desk like me and chair-flew his way through a prosperous AF career. Instead, he chose to get shot at, kick down doors and capture and kill our enemies. He did all of this while turning down a promotion which he rightfully earned. Will was up for a promotion to Captain but if he took the promotion, he would not have been able to lead a platoon (typically a Lieutenant's position). Rather than become a company commander farther removed from the mission, he decided to keep his LT bars so that he could serve out his deployment with the men he had trained with. To Will, the military is definitely NOT about the money. In Will's decision, he probably lost out on thousands of tax-free dollars. But rather then worry about what he could gain from the "government," he chose a path that would be better for the "country."

Next is my friend Luke Hansen who after a year deployment to Iraq under Gen Petreaus' team, decided to move on with his life and seek out civilian opportunities. Today, he is both a full-time defense contractor utilizing his top notch analytical skills and a graduate student at the University of Maryland studying sustainable energy engineering. When I asked him how he was paying for Graduate School he replied "out of pocket." I quickly informed him that he was "entitled" to the post 9/11 GI Bill, by which he retorted "I feel like I didn't really earn it after only serving 4 extra months after my obligation. Technically I did, but it just seems like an excessive benefit." 99% of ordinary Americans wouldn't allow a little thing like "principles" to stand in their way of government benefits as they are the first in line to take entitlement programs like "unemployment." For those who have seen REAL sacrifice and who know their role in it like Luke, they serve as a reminder by which all of us should aspire. For Luke, it's not about the immediate self-gratification of the government paying for his education. It's probably more about being able to look at the "MAN IN THE GLASS."

My father has made it a point never to refer to himself as a Veteran, although by today's standards, he certainly could. When his service in the Reserves is ever brought up in conjunction with that word, you can feel the uneasiness and sense of embarrassment that he has about it. In that regard, he is much like the thousands of humble war Veterans who quietly go on about their day without ever mentioning their service. My father has chosen instead to recognize those among him who have served overseas and have faced danger as the "real Vets."

I am sometimes surrounded by people in the military who exaggerate their service to this country. They would have you look at the rack of ribbons on their chest as a proclamation of what kind of war hero they were. To those outside of the military, these "smoke and mirrors" would make them indistinguishable from someone who really sacrificed. Many of the real heroes don't wear uniforms any more nor do I imagine would they care about such trivial matters as decorations.

I often tell the people who work for me that whatever reason they are in the AF, let it be "your reason, not someone else's." If it's to get an education and use the GI Bill, so be it. If it's to travel and see the world, then take as many assignments abroad as possible. For myself, I sometimes feel that I have overstayed my welcome. I owe a lot to the AF and this country. The longer I stay in, the more I feel like I owe them. If I do choose to continue down the military path, my only wish for myself is that the decision was made in order to get back to that 2nd Lieutenant's worldview who cared more about his country than his bank account. If I could remember that, then I'd be doing this for "all the right reasons."

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