I grew up in East Tennessee, where traditions of military service remain strong. In my mother’s family, at least, there was a strong expectation that any able-bodied young men would serve in uniform. And as a young man, growing up with my grandfather’s campaign medals hanging over my bed, I remember thinking that I would not want to look back on my life having never served in uniform.
I still feel that way decades later. I was hardly the first young man for whom military service was a rite of passage on the journey to adulthood. It had to be, for me. At what, today, seems like an impossibly young age of 23, I was given responsibility for a platoon, and I was expected to fight with enough courage and intelligence to bring all of my men home with me if at all possible.
A year ago, my former platoon sergeant paid me a visit in Texas, and the two of us reflected on that shared responsibility, marveling at how young and immature we were. The stress, both physical and mental, was immense. There’s a picture of me from the end of my first deployment to Afghanistan. I am shirtless, and I look emaciated. Days spent patrolling above 10,000 feet on one meal a day will do that to you.
Yet I look happy. I had survived, after all, and I was stronger, in so many ways, than I was when I had arrived. If those experiences do not help you grow you as a person, nothing will.
The war had the same effect on so many others. I recently spoke for several hours on the phone with a friend, a former aid worker who spent several harrowing years in Afghanistan and then had moved back to the United States and retrained as a nurse. She told me her experiences helped prepare her for the trauma and demands of the Covid-19 pandemic. She was, she concluded, grateful for those experiences. The war was like calluses on a hand, earned through labor, making future challenges more bearable.
One tragedy of the wars was that they claimed so much talent — so many luminescent lives snuffed out in late adolescence. Still, to have served alongside such men and women — to have worked together, to have fought together, to have laughed together — was a blessing.