Project W - Reflections on Service
Brent Droze is a real estate and land use attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine. Before going to law school, Brent spent nine years on active duty as an officer in the United States Air Force. This Veterans Day, as we recognize the men and women who have served our country in the armed forces, Brent reflects on the meaning of service and how all of us can apply the principles of service in our daily lives.
The nine years I spent on active duty as an officer in the United States Air Force and the four years before that spent as a cadet at the Air Force Academy are, without a doubt, the most formative periods of my life. The Air Force core values—service, integrity, and excellence—direct my flight through life and inform my approach to the practice of law. Although I left the military over eight years ago, I am forever tied to the Air Force, its mission, and its people. Even though I no longer put on a uniform, every day of my life has in some way been impacted by my service. From receiving healthcare at the local VA hospital to using the GI Bill to put myself through law school, I am regularly reminded of (and grateful for) those long, hard days that made me the person I am today.
In many ways, I am fortunate to have completed my service without the significant physical and emotional scars that so many of my fellow Post-9/11 veterans carry with them daily. The physical impact of war—the respiratory diseases resulting from living adjacent to burn pits, traumatic brain injuries, and countless other ailments from the sheer strain that war inflicts on the human body—are well documented. So are the emotional strains of war. The impacts of post-traumatic stress on veterans, the disruptions to their families and relationships rooted in a seemingly never-ending deployment cycle, and the difficulty in transitioning from service back to civilian life affect veterans long after they leave the battlefield. In that respect, I am likely the exception, not the rule. I am fortunate in that respect.
Veterans Day is an important day of contemplation because the impacts of the scourge of war are borne by a disproportionate few. Seven percent of Americans have served in this nation's armed forces, and that number becomes even more stark when World War II, Korea, and Vietnam veterans are removed from the total count. Fewer than one percent of Americans served in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
On this Veterans Day and on those in the future, there is a decent chance that many Americans will not have a meaningful relationship with a veteran. In many ways, that is good because it means the incidence of large-scale military conflict is in retreat. In other ways, the paucity of Americans who have served in the armed forces is a bad thing. The more disconnected our society becomes from the horrors of war and the personal sacrifices that accompany military service, the more apt we are to resort to militarism as a first choice to solve geopolitical issues instead of the last.
Regardless of whether you know a veteran on this Veterans Day, I encourage you to reflect for a few minutes on the veteran experience. This doesn't mean considering your position on whether we should have expended national treasure in pursuit of the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq or whether those who were killed in those conflicts died in vain. Save that for another day. Instead, I encourage you to take the time to consider the meaning of their service, and how that can help you live a full and meaningful life in service to others.
In a nutshell, the veteran experience is about fully committing to something greater than yourself, even when that commitment is inconvenient to your personal needs and desires or does not fully align with your opinions or preferences. It is about spending less time thinking about what makes you different from those around you—whether it be race, gender, sexual orientation, politics, religion, or otherwise—and spending more time building an otherwise disparate group of individuals into a high-performing team striving for a common goal. It is about rejecting the "all or nothing" mentality that pervades today's society and realizing that minor differences can be put aside in pursuit of the greater good. Take stock of these concepts and try to integrate them into your approach to life, relationships, and business. Think about how you can put aside your own personal needs and desires for the sake of something worthwhile.
Finally, a gentle reminder that, for many veterans, their military service evokes a wide array of emotions, ranging from pride and satisfaction to regret and disappointment. For every veteran who is proud of their service, there is likely one who never wants to speak of it again. This seems to be especially true for those who served in the Vietnam era—who not only carry the scars of war but also the memories of a country whose popular culture unfortunately conflated the judgment of those who made the decision to make war in Southeast Asia with those who were conscripted to execute it. Still other veterans demur when asked about or thanked for their service because they served in times of relative peace and did not experience the rigors of wartime service that Vietnam or Post 9/11 veterans experienced.
That is not to say that you should be shy about engaging with a veteran on Veterans Day. You should always feel free to thank a veteran for their service. However, know that your overture may be met with a curt but cordial response or with a longer conversation. Either way is okay! Recognizing, engaging with, or thanking a veteran on Veterans Day is not an endorsement of militarism or a celebration of war, but rather a solemn recognition of veterans' extraordinary commitment to putting the needs of our country—however prudent or wise—ahead of their own.