Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but of playing a poor hand well. -Robert Louis Stevenson
Well it’s Veterans Day. That means I have something to write about and get to dump my feelings out onto my computer screen. I’m not going to lie, this post has been hard for me to get down. I’ll get to why that is specifically later on down. My three times a year to shine here are Memorial Day, Fourth of July and today, Veterans Day. It’s almost easier writing for the other two days because it’s not writing about myself. It’s easy to write about the men and women who came before me and their actions. It’s much harder for me to write about myself without being critical or feeling like I am preaching. If I am honest with myself and with others, I have not been a very good veteran lately. I didn’t know this was something you could be good or bad at, I always assumed it was just something you are or you aren’t. Being able to write this has helped me personally step back and gain some perspective though, and I am thankful for that opportunity.
I can’t remember where I heard this, but it ties in to today perfectly. There are three types of courage you can show; physical courage, moral courage and daily courage. Each of the three types of courage can be attributed to the three military related holidays I mentioned earlier. Memorial Day is remembering the physical courage and sacrifice so many have demonstrated on the battlefield. The Fourth of July is a celebration of moral courage, when our founders stood up against tyranny for what they believed was right. Lastly, Veterans Day represents daily courage, something that is harder to see and not often talked about. I’ll go more in depth later on, but I’ll start from the beginning.
Physical courage is the most obvious one out of the three. It’s the easiest to write about and is the most visible to everyone else. Memorial Day is when we get to hear all the stories about those who gave their lives in defense of our country. As a kid, I used to think this meant the absence of fear, just simply not being scared of anything. In fact, it turned out to be quite the opposite. There is no physical courage if there is no fear. Nelson Mandela said “Courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” I remember very clearly the first time I ever got shot at. It was maybe our 3rd day in Afghanistan. I was on an observation post, up on a hill we had creatively dubbed OP Hill. I don’t want to spend pages and pages telling war stories so I will try and sum it up to the point I am trying to make.
That day early on in our deployment, a Marine foot patrol near our hill was suddenly pinned down from a nearby house with 2 Taliban machine guns firing out the windows. Seven of us from OP Hill threw on our gear and quickly left our base and climbed a nearby hill where we spotted the house and fired a missile at it. My job in the Marine Corps was a missile man and that day we had the javelin missile system with us. It uses thermal heat signatures to lock onto targets which is great for tanks, but we found out it is not ideal in Afghanistan where everything is made out of mud. The missile landed in the front “yard”. If they didn’t know they were flanked, they did now. There was a brief pause where neither side fired, we were not sure if they would tuck tail and run after realizing our position. Suddenly, crisp snaps were going off overhead and the rocks we were crouched behind were kicked up into our faces as bullets slammed into them from their first burst of machine gun fire. We returned fire and the pinned platoon was able to start moving again and not long after, the Taliban decided to relocate. When the patrol gave the all clear, we made our way back up to safety up on OP Hill. I remember my legs shaking from the adrenaline rush wearing off and somehow even shivering cold in the 120 degree heat.
Up on the hill, we dropped our gear and high-fived each other, celebrating our great victory of shooting a $150,000 lawn dart. It didn’t matter what happened, we just knew we had passed that first test that every young man in the military worries about when joining. There was still intermittent gunfire being exchanged between the foot patrol currently clearing a nearby group of houses, but we were up on the safety of our fortified hill. I remember thinking about how much fun that was when the radio crackled, the Company Commander told us to throw our gear back on and push out further than before and help with over-watch for the nearby patrol. Suddenly things got real for me, I was no longer excited for how much fun combat was turning out to be. I was 23 years old and had brought with me the feeling that I was invincible. Growing up climbing 30 foot trees barefoot and cliff jumping into Skiatook Lake, I understood that it was dangerous, but never assumed that I would be the one to get hurt. Those first bullets missing me by inches shattered that innocence and suddenly I was terrified. I clearly remember standing inside the walls of the hill, fully geared up and waiting for the call to come over the radio to leave the friendly confines and walk out into the open, towards the gunfire. It was like I had never fully contemplated or understood the consequences of joining the Infantry in a time of war. Those of you who know me know that nobody has ever accused me of being someone who thinks things through, I’m more of a fly by the seat of my pants guy. It’s probably my best trait according to my wife(just kidding). I remember looking down at my feet and feeling like they were made of concrete. How in the world was I going to pick them up and walk into that? I had always thought I would be brave in that moment when I imagined it in my head growing up and throughout training. I wasn’t the first one to have to do this, I wondered why it would be a problem for me?
I looked up at the other six guys to see if they had the same reservations as me. If they did, they weren’t showing it, none of us were. We had all spent the last year training together and had come to rely on each other, letting your brother down was the unforgivable sin in the Marines. The call came over the radio and the point man stepped out. I remember thinking “how am I going to do this?” But when it came time for me to step out, it ended up being surprisingly easy. The second I was outside the wire, everything felt natural, training instantly kicked in and I was at ease. As an individual, I wasn’t brave or courageous that day. If it was just me, I doubt I could have done it and I would have remained frozen in place. My courage didn’t come from within, it came from my fellow Marines. We trusted each other with our lives and then some. Not that we ever talked about this, but I am sure the others had the same reservations and fears along with every other young kid who has stepped into battle did throughout history. An individual can have physical courage on his own, but when we all go through that same struggle together our courage is multiplied exponentially.
Moving on to the Fourth of July, the major topic I usually write about is moral courage. Even though it feels like it’s hard to find examples of it lately, moral courage is what founded this country and continues to make our country great. When the 56 Founding Fathers put their name on the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock was said to tell them that members of Congress need to hang together. Ben Franklin replied “Yes, we must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” They were not sure if they signed for their independence or their death warrant. Time after time in American history, there are pivotal decisions and moments where we have shown that we as a country will not falter when we stand for what is right. In a time when Millennials are known for being selfish, self-absorbed and un-American. Millennials are also fighting a 17 year war that is all but forgotten by everyone except those who fought it. They stood up as the towers fell down, answering the call when America needed it most. The same call that Paul Revere yelled while riding through the streets that night. The same call that was answered in the devastating first blow dealt by Japan in Pearl Harbor. We see examples all over the world of what happens to a country when the young men and women are either unable or unwilling to put their life on the line to save an idea.
Which brings me to the men and women we are honoring today, those who stood up and answered the call when our way of life was threatened. They went when they were in the prime of their lives, 18 year olds willing to risk the unknown for something they were only just beginning to understand. To date, 6,954 of those have lost their life defending the abstract idea of America. On Memorial Day and Independence Day we come together as a country and mourn. Today we honor those who came home. The men and women who are left to shoulder the burden that their brothers and sisters laid down. Memorial Day to them is every day, they were able to see what the absence of freedom actually looks like. For those who served, it takes daily courage to keep contributing after they have already given so much. It takes courage for someone who lost three limbs at age 19 to wake up and smile every day when he might not feel like he has much to smile about. It takes courage to transition back into a society that sometimes doesn’t understand the sacrifices you and others made.
It’s not always easy though, most of the time it isn’t. As I said earlier, this post was difficult to get out because I feel like I have fallen short since I left the military and entered the civilian world. Sometimes it takes stopping, stepping back and taking inventory of your situation. The source of my struggle and so many others is something we learned early on in our military training though. Looking back at my first combat experience, I wasn’t brave or courageous. Not by myself. It was only through the shared struggle that I was able to take that first step out into the unknown. We are only strong if we are together, both veterans and the people who now welcome them back into society. That kind of daily courage is what makes veterans who they are. Daily courage is not wanting to take for granted the life we get to live because of those who didn’t return.
The quote at the top of the page sums it up for me. As veterans, sometimes when we go back into society it is easy for us to wonder if it was all worth it. Guys who lost limbs, eyesight, or marriages. Missing the birth of your kids and countless birthdays. Some carry with them a lifetime of pain both mentally and physically and it can be very easy to wonder if it was all worth it. Instead of focusing on the hand we were dealt, we are able to have the daily courage to go out and play the hand we have. The guys I served with were and still are my heroes, in fact I consider myself to be the luckiest guy in the world in that regard. I could very easily feel sorry for myself and sometimes I catch myself doing just that, but standing alongside
the great men and women keeps me from giving into that fear.
I am eternally thankful that I had the chance and ability to serve, it was something I will always be proud of. Just the fact that I was able to wear the same uniform as all of those who still fight daily gives me the daily courage to continue fighting for each other and to keep fighting for America. I am thankful for this opportunity from LawnAmerica that allows me to write about something I feel is important today. Lastly, thank you to every single veteran out there. Thank you for your selfless service and your strength to keep going each day.