Military veterans come in many shapes and sizes. Some, like myself, served one enlistment or more in relative peacetime, learned many skills, and moved onto a career in civilian life.
Others — who may have served in Iraq and Afghanistan — have had a much tougher time reintegrating. Post-traumatic stress disorder and worse are among the least-desired baggage brought home.
Some people don’t make it back at all, of course, and we pray for them and recall their service every day. But for those who do return, military experience has a way of grounding everything that comes after it. For me, military service taught the following four life lessons — which play out in a host of ways and often manifest themselves as a “voice” that speaks clearly, at least to me.
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1.) Take it as a dare. We often hear people talk about going outside of their “comfort zone.” It might be an unusual assignment at work — or an attempt to repair something at home. Either way, the little voice might say, “Who says you can’t do it?” Then there’s no going back.
The Clint Eastwood movie “Magnum Force” gave us the iconic line, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Daring myself to do a job, nevertheless, means pretending there aren’t any limitations at all — at least until it’s done.
2.) A goal is a goal. In the military as well as civilian life, objectives are not always clear — and sometimes they seem a tad bone-headed. But until further notice, it’s best to gauge available time, manpower and other resources to push toward that goal. While military training isn’t essential for knowing how to reach targets, committing to a task is often second nature to anyone taught to ask “How high?” — instead of questioning every order to jump.
Besides, by turning to something without delay, you’ll have time left for jokes, such as, “That officer is so dumb, he couldn’t pour water out of his boot if you put the instructions on the heel.”
We as a society are better for the sacrifices of our veterans — and I feel a better man for having been part of it.
3.) Duty informs family. Allegiance toward my wife and children naturally follows from having served my country. Twice during the career that followed my discharge, I needed to abruptly change paths.
The first time, after my employer decided to lay off a small group of us, I called my wife — then went crosstown to drum up projects for my new freelance business, which augmented our income for the next few years.
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The second time was when my wife and I agreed one of us needed to leave full-time employment to look after our two young children, both under age five at the time. That person, we decided, would be me. Why? We’d decided to swear off babysitters at that point, since the one we’d hired weeks before enjoyed napping on the living room couch. “Sometimes she opens her eyes,” our little daughter reported.
As with my service years, you do what you have to do when you’re a husband and father — because it’s right.
4.) Stay accountable — and humble. The notion of taking responsibility for one’s actions never grows old. I can’t count how many times I’ve said or done something stupid on the job, among friends, or at home. Still, I understand I’m human and fallible — unlike the Lord above — and was put on this earth for many reasons.
As long as I can nod and say, “Yep, that wasn’t my finest moment,” I have an advantage over those who can’t (or won’t) step back to take a good, hard look at themselves or their less-than-perfect moments — and grow from the experience.
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Today’s educational system seems more committed to fostering high esteem than smart, informed citizens. I’m grateful to have not only missed that trend but to have received the opposite. Nine weeks of boot camp alone granted me the additional pleasure of myriad comparisons to earthworms, slugs and other slithering vermin — enough to last a lifetime.
Veterans Day began as Armistice Day, a celebration of victory in World War I. Today, however, it’s a celebration of the roughly 20 million military veterans alive — and their countless contributions to this great nation. We as a society are better for their sacrifices, and I feel a better man for having been part of it.