Sunday, September 30, 2012

Serving An Entire Country

My brother-in-law recently celebrated  his retirement from the U.S. Navy after 26 years of military service and we went to honor this milestone with him.  There were bigwigs and decorated folk all around.  There were commendations and certificates and special gifts (see picture) and rituals.  It was a very nice ceremony, pretty much what I expected except more personal.  What I didn't expect was how emotional I would become during the ceremony.  I figured my biggest job that day was going to be handing my sister packs of tissues.  In fact, it was me who half way through, had to lean over two seats and beg a pack off of my niece.  The sleeve of my sweater set was becoming unseemly.

Part of the emotionality came when my brother-in-law and his superior both spoke about the life and career that was coming to a close.  I was reminded of the skinny kid from Indiana who went to basic training and traveled across the globe to Japan and Spain.  I was reminded of the homes in California, Virginia, Georgia, Texas, Washington and Illinois and the months and years spent on a ship while his children grew up at home with their mom, my sister.  I was reminded of orders that made sense to me like his unit being called to help after Hurricane Andrew and ones that didn't, like going to Iraq.  It was intensely moving for me to hear him summarize his life and what all the choices had meant and what all the people in his life meant.

I've never really understood the military life that my brother-in-law chose.  I was terrified when their oldest son enlisted during wartime and was called to serve in Afghanistan. I assume that most of our leaders aren't really thinking of the tremendous sacrifice of our military personnel and  I get angry when money and power seem to matter more than people. I've had the painful moments where my "loving the soldier but not the war" stance left me feeling uncomfortable with my family. The bottom line though, is that I am proud of my brother-in-law.  I'm really glad that I was able to share in the special ceremony.  I think he was happy to have us be a part of the day as well, especially my son playing "Taps" for the closing.

The following morning the two of us, from two very different walks of life - military and human services, had the most amazing conversation.  We talked politics for about an hour.  Usually that is taboo and we did it during an election year!  Both of us are pretty calm people and we were clearly trying to use language that wasn't too intense or accusatory but there was something else.  We discussed health care, education, taxes, the role of government and the future of the U.S.  We talked about budget cuts, gun laws and which Presidents had shown genuine concern for the military (his opinion was based on how they had treated the military personnel stationed at the White House and Camp David).  We didn't reference which candidates we would be voting for (although he can see my bumper sticker for Obama) and we didn't lash out or put anyone down.  We just talked about what was important to us.

It was a great dialogue because we both had the other's respect.  No matter our differences, he knew that we had traveled to come and honor his 26 years of service. I knew that those 26 years were spent serving an entire country, not just the citizens who think like him or vote like him or pray like him.  I don't understand a lot of things about the military but I understand that serving an entire country is what good leaders do.  Our elected leaders need to practice more of that type of service.  


  1. great post eltee. i grew up in a military family, so I too "love the soldier but not the war" and it also puts me at odds with my family at times. Congratulations to you and your brother-in-law for your conversation. it's so important, but so hard, to have that kind of positive dialogue.

    and yes, we need to hear more politicians talk about the 100%!

  2. Thanks Deb. I find more and more that when I talk about what's important to me personally, the conversations are good. Speaking in generalities about what "those people" makes it too easy to get mean and irrational. My experience, my feelings,are all mine. They can't be debated or fact checked. The trick is getting to a place where you can speak at that level and LISTEN at that level.

  3. Great post. These kind of conversations do need to happen more often in this country. I am almost always pleasantly surprised when I take a risk and discuss politics or religion with someone who may disagree with many of my beliefs/positions. These conversations have the power to transform individuals and possibly the country. Not sure how we can get over our fear of bringing up subjects that are not 'polite' to discuss in mixed company. Our democracy depends on it.