When my husband, Felix, passed away last year, he left me the gift of time to pursue whatever I wanted. "Go to Europe, he said, or wherever your heart takes you." I thought of going with Doctors without Borders but I didn't think there was much demand for a psychiatrist there. Instead, I took a contract job in an army hospital out-patient service as a way of giving back. It has been a most enriching experience.
Unlike the 60's when military service was a mandated luck of the draw, today's US army (and armed forces) are served by young men and women who voluntarily raised their hand in oath to protect the country and the US Constitution. They go through rigorous training. They go where they are told to go. It is duty first.
Soldiers are held to a higher standard embodied in the seven core values ingrained in soldier training.
• Loyalty: Bear true faith and allegiance to the US Constitution, the Army, your unit and other soldiers.
• Duty: Fulfill your obligations.
• Respect: Treat people as they should be treated.
• Selfless service: Put the welfare of the Nation, the Army, and your subordinates before your own.
• Honor: Live up to Army values.
• Integrity: Do what's right legally and morally.
• Personal courage: Face fear, danger or adversity (physical or moral.)
This I see every day.
Soldiers come from all walks of life, from all 50 states, its territories and from different nations. They are young people, some are emancipated 17 year olds. They have differing reasons for enlisting most common of all is to serve the nation. The majority enlist because being a soldier has always been their dream. Some enlist because they have seen 911 and watched the war on TV and felt that it was their duty. Many come from generations of soldiers who have sacrificed family members to death and disability. Some left successful careers or businesses to be of service to the country. Some enlist because they lost their jobs. A single mother of three children enlisted because it was the only way she could get insurance for her sick child. Some come with express hopes of building character. A few come because they have nowhere else to go.
Regardless of the reason for joining, all are expected to live by the core army values. The day starts at six for physical training formation before they go to their job assignments. Soldiers must be physically and mentally fit, ready and able to adapt to diverse and changing conditions. They train in adverse conditions, in the Mojave desert of California, the swamps of Louisiana, the mountains of Colorado and the winters of Alaska. Soldiers can be discharged for not maintaining ideal weight. They are expected to be financially responsible, take care of their families, and obey the law. Everyone obeys the speed limit in the fort. A DUI will cost a soldier his rank and a second one a discharge.
All occupations are represented in the armed forces, doctors, lawyers, mechanics, cooks, aviators, engineers, custodians, computer techs, infantrymen and some duties no one should ever have to do like cleaning blown up vehicles where a soldier lost life or limb.
Unlike previous times, today's soldier expects to spend 12 to 15 months in deployment to the war zone, come home for a year and go back again for another year. Many are training for their third and fourth deployment. They expect this. It is duty first. Many lament not seeing a child born, not being able to attend a family member's funeral, or be present for a spouse's surgery. It is duty first. Couples assigned to different brigades could deploy at different times and live together maybe three months in two years. Single parents face the heartache of leaving their children to grandparents and relatives during these times.
I am awed by the service of these young men and women, professionals in their duty embodied in the words of a soldier who said, "Ma'am, I've been bombed, I've been ambushed, and I've been hurt, but I have never ever fired my weapon in anger." This, of course, is the true warrior, the samurai.
We take them for granted, these protectors and first responders. They fight the war, patrol our coastlines and national borders, protect our skies and our seas, patrol our streets, and go into burning buildings. They go to their jobs everyday because it is duty first. They put themselves in harm's way so we can sleep well at night while they remain in the periphery of our consciousness, if at all.
I came with the intention of serving. The people I came to serve, instead, teach me about our world, life, responsibility and duty first. I am the better for it and I am humbled and grateful. How is it, I ask, that I can give so little and still receive so much?