I have arrived again at my yearly day of renewal. For many years, I have written on this day about the meaning I extract from November 10th, the Marine Corps Birthday, and tomorrow, Veterans Day. I feel particularly in need to reflect upon these dates during this year, 2020. My, how much I have learned.
In 1996, after living a twenty-one year life of relative comfort, I enlisted in the US Marines. No major war. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 years in the future, the Gulf War years in the past. My reasons for enlisting then do not matter as much now. Patriotic pride, sense of adventure, a need to prove to myself and others I had grit and tenacity and worth. These desires now appear foggy in the mist of my memory, glazed over by time of work, marriage, raising kids, and getting older. These memories now disappearing as I slow down.
Every veteran I know joined for personal reasons. Lithe of body, supple of mind, we joined to do something: to learn, to fight, to be counted, to go out and go forth. Some performed astounding acts of heroism. Others performed their jobs admirably and efficiently to support those heroes in danger. And as we all should know, some and their families who survived them gave what President Abraham Lincoln called, “the last full measure of devotion.”
This year of 2020, we have all endured the hardship of a world set upon by contagion. Here in the United States, we have witnessed civil protest and a changing society and voted in a charged presidential election. Amidst these great challenges, what have you learned?
A month ago, I wrote about the first presidential debate, and how it symbolized our inability to talk with one another, to engage in vigorous but intelligent debate. Even with the hindsight now of the election, I still believe we have forsaken our ability to converse, interrupted by the immediate “notifications” of our devices. However, I do believe an awakening of sorts will soon arrive, one where we relearn what it means to be human and to talk with one another.
In the past year, I have participated in several podcasts. I’ll write more on these events in the future, but for now, I’ll say that in each recorded episode, I understood more of the beauty of our fellow human beings, the power of our voices, the intimacy of sharing and learning new ideas with one another. Most people, despite what we “see” on our devices, will respect each other if they stop and listen. So, as I am reminded of the patriotic duty I once felt that led me to sign up for 6 years in the US Marine Corps, I will posit to all of you, one way to fulfill your patriotic duty today is to listen. Not to our “leaders” per se, but to one another.
A year before I enlisted, in the small living room of my house, my father and I discussed our thoughts about joining the service. He said, “You know, you could lose your life,” ironic now because at the time neither of us knew he would lose his the following year to a brief and ferocious battle with cancer. I replied that losing my life was of little concern to me, not a consideration for my young, brash self.
Later, during my combat training when we were learning to move at night, in the silent and still dark my training platoon walked into an ambush. I had ventured too far into a clearing and about 20 yards from me, I saw the bright flashes and heard the muffled reports of the blanks. I thought, “If these were live rounds, I’d be dead.” It was sudden, not only my imagined death if instead of infantry school I were actually fighting in a combat theater, but the realization of my own mortality. Had this ambush been real, my father would have been right.
That conclusion sticks with me now, especially as I reflect upon this year, when so many people have lost their loved ones and livelihoods because of this disease and friendships because of our politics. As I remember those vivid flashes from the M-16 of my training “enemy,” I am reminded of this one life we all have, and how we can live it better and more humanely. To learn. To listen. To go out and go forth, citizens and friends.
Happy Birthday, Marines, and Happy Veterans Day to all those who donned the uniform.
Thank you for reading.