Last week, as I made my weekly commissary run over to Luke Air Force Base, I pulled up to the main gate, showed my retired military ID card, then was sharply saluted by the young lady manning the front gate. She then thanked me for my service and, as I returned her salute, I thanked her for hers. It is a ritual enjoyed between two generations of those who serve. We are like an exclusive fraternity, the entry required involving the writing of a blank check to your country....up to and including your life.
That young lady in uniform stands partly on my shoulders, just as I stood on the shoulders of veterans from Korea and World War II. We are a pyramid of millions, that young lady standing at the very top, standing on the shoulders of all who came before her. She still lives by more than two hundred years of military tradition. Those of us who no longer serve on active duty support her on her every deployment, cheer her on every time she gets a raise in basic pay, are there for her when she needs our support.
This fraternity of men and women never ask if another has seen combat. It doesn't matter if they serviced jeeps, ladled chow in a chow line, clerked in the 1st Sergeant's office, or carried a .50 Cal and 75 pounds of ammo on their back. Because everyone wrote "that check". Everyone, at one time or another, had to bid a tearful farewell to family...not knowing if they'd ever see them again. Many of them left for war on the eve of Thanksgiving or Christmas, or a child's birthday...the military clerk who typed up your deployment orders giving no thought to what's "convenient", and with little regard for the calendar.
And this fraternity belonged to no labor union. So when the task at hand called for a 24, or 48, or 72 hour work day, well, we grunted and lived up to the task at hand. Those lucky enough to pull desk duty might have gotten off for Christmas, but most did not....a holiday was something that resonated more in mind than in the reality of the day. Most of us were on the battlefield, or in observation towers, or bunkers when the church bells rang out for Christmas mass, or call to Easter service. And the only thing that made all of that tolerable is that we were in it together...shoulder to shoulder, the clinking of canteen cup, or a friendly exchange of C-rations to celebrate the holiday.
Speaking only for myself, I have had my share of service hardship....gathering my toddlers and hugging them tight to my chest, my heart set to explode as I bid them goodbye for a year, giving my wife a last embrace, manning lonely outposts in god forsaken places, and missing my homeland so much my heart virtually ached.
But I, and nearly every veteran, will tell you it was somehow worth it. Military service is oh so tough, but it truly gives back as much as it asks for....with the possible exception of that civilian-run VA hospital who long ago forgot their mission. But the military folks themselves taught us the value of "we", the sharing of a human experience that puts "community" above self. My Air Force was there for me every time I wished to go out and get more education. She was there when I needed tuition assistance, her base the refuge I returned to when my time on campus was done. And each time I was promoted to a higher rank, she was there to smile upon me with pride...and a few dollars more in my pay check. I gave the Air Force 22 years of my life, many of them unbelievably challenging. And yet the Air Force gave me the life I have today, and, for good or bad, made me the man I am today.
And, whether that young lady at the Luke Air Force Base main gate serves four years, or forty, she will take with her a bounty of honor for the service she rendered. And she will always know that she is part of that vast pyramid of veterans who boosted her onto their shoulders....and do to this day.
Happy Veterans Day to all who served...and to all Americans who supported us when we did.