At Upper School Community Time this morning, students reflected on the collective impact brave men and women have had on our nation’s history. They were also asked to consider the impact of the individuals – the friends and family members whose contributions through their service have affected every one of them in a uniquely powerful way. "For me," said Upper School Head Ryan Liese, it was "my grandfather, whose service in World War II fostered my love of history, ultimately leading me to a life of teaching."
Assistant Head of School Jerry Beckman spoke about becoming a peacetime member of the Army. Torn between pursuing music education or engineering in college, at the end of his senior year, he was encouraged to audition for the United States Army Field Band.
"The Army Field Band is one of the five premier service bands with the mission of being the musical ambassadors of the Army. We were known as the soldier’s soldier, responsible for telling the Army Soldier’s story across the country and around the world. I had the opportunity to travel and perform in 42 states, as well as Korea, Japan, and Germany. During my three-year enlistment, I had the opportunity to visit with hundreds of veterans who served in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. Their stories of defending our constitution and freedoms still stick with me today!
"In summary," said Mr. Beckman, "this is how my military experience shaped me: I understand that freedom is never free and that many people have given their lives to preserve our freedom and defend our constitution. We must remember those who have gone before us and never take our freedom for granted. The military taught me that teamwork is essential. We need each other to survive and we must be willing to reach out and help each other. I learned that being on time means being early. I also learned that preparation is the most important ingredient to success. Always be prepared, not just for what you think might happen, but more importantly for the unexpected!"
Upper School English teacher Nathaniel Gee shared his experiences growing up in the military: As an Army brat, he said, my view of military life was seen through the eyes of a naïve child and a whiny teenager, but as I matured, I came to view the job our veterans do not just with admiration but with profound awe.
When I graduated high school, the longest I’d ever lived anywhere was two years, and sometimes we moved after a few months. I lived on military bases around the States, including the now closed Ft. McClellan, Alabama, but I also spent a few years overseas in elementary school in Stuttgart, West Germany, and I started High School in Daegu, South Korea; I was really a Cold War kid.
As a young kid, I viewed the job my father did like a comic book persona: he was like a G.I. JOE action figure, a fantastically powerful superhero performing heroic acts with ease. At Ft. Bragg, I remember playing in the sand with my brother at the edge of a jump field as we watched tiny parachutes like toy soldiers spit out the back of a passing C130, and with each little figure we looked up at my worried mom and said, “Is that one Dad? Is that one Dad?”
As I grew up, I realized the awesome sacrifice and the grave power of my old man’s job.
When I was eight, we lived in West Germany in the early 1980s, an intense moment in Cold War history. It was also a country still recovering from the most intense war in human history, and I remember hiking up a large mountain at the center of town that was built completely out of the rubble of the town after the WWII. I remember seeing the ovens at the Dachau concentration camp, along with the batons used to terrorize Jews and political prisoners. One day, my dad came home after a weeks-long operation and gave me this shell which today rests on the table in my classroom. He said it came from old battlefields of the WWII Battle of the Bulge, near where his company had recently been on maneuvers. He picked up the empty shell because he said “It was a shot fired in anger.” My dad served in a peacetime military, and for the thousands and thousands of rounds he had fired at the range, he had never fired a shot at another person.
As I handled the shell that seemed sacred to him, it became quite clear that this job my father did every day was no game; this was an awesome power he and his troops wielded, power to level cities, to free those in bondage, and to change the world.
When I was fourteen, we moved to Daegu, Korea and lived in a heavily armed base nestled in that large city. I lived behind 16-foot concrete walls topped with razor wire and gates guarded by MPs with M60 machine guns. The high school was on a different base, and I had to show my military ID and Ration Card to the MP clad in full body armor carrying an automatic weapon in order to board the school bus. Despite my father’s forbiddance and the security precautions, my brother and I frequently snuck off gate and wandered the alleys of that incredible city.
We pooled our lunch money and ate dumplings from carts off the street and wandered though wild bazaars and learned a little Hangul so we could communicate. We fell in love with the food, the people, and the incredible urban landscape. We soon learned, however, that as much as most South Koreans were grateful for U.S. military help keeping the North Korean army at bay, many South Koreans also felt that the U.S. propped up what they saw as a corrupt, undemocratic South Korean government. The 1988 Olympics were coming up, and South Korea was full of large protests against the South Korean government and the Americans who supported it. These protests often led to confrontations with police and broke out in violence. Tear gas would float over the wall of the base I lived on, and we’d have to shelter inside.
Once, my dad nearly lost his life when his Humvee was firebombed after a wrong turn into a heated protest. My idols, Sgt. Lambert and Sgt. Freckman, two huge bodybuilding soldiers, pulled my old man’s unconscious body from the fiery vehicle. These experiences startled me by revealing that American military power was not always seen as a benefit, even among those who we were supposed to be helping. Now, I saw my father’s job not just as heroic, not just as powerful, but complicated, and rife with unintended consequences.
I returned to the States to finish out high school in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, on fire with this revelation, but I found that most Americans—kids and adults—really didn’t want to hear my stories. They were more interested in the Bart Simpson fad or spending hours playing Legend of Zelda on the new game system called Nintendo. I realize now that we all are consumed by our lives, and that all humans, particularly teenagers, can be narcissistic, not really caring about the problems of the world.
From all these experiences, comes my perspective on how we should honor veterans. They deserve holidays that recognize their service, sacrifice, bravery, and patriotism. And they deserve substantial medical, retirement, and education benefits that help them re-adjust to life as civilians. But they also deserve a responsible citizenry.
We, as citizens, should take responsibility for our role in their missions. They are not employees we order about or avatars in some video game that we play. These are men and women who bravely, without complaint or question, charge up the hill following the orders that we give them. And they do this because they trust us to have asked the right questions, to have given them well-informed, responsible orders. We should take our role as citizens seriously and educate ourselves about the outside world before we commit someone like my mother’s husband, my grandfather’s son, or my brother’s father into danger. We should take responsibility for the effect it will have upon them and also upon the cultures and people whom they will encounter.
So, take your history classes seriously, study foreign cultures and foreign languages, read books about the world outside of your own. Become learners not just for yourself, but for your role as citizens. Involve yourself in the decisions your country makes. Most of all, get to know your veterans. Learn about them as individuals, ask them to tell you their stories or the lessons they learned. Or, be curious about their current lives and then figure out what is important to them now as a result of their time in the service. Show them that though we may never be able to exactly understand their experience, we want to understand, that we want to listen and keep listening, and that we want to learn from them.