This past May, I had the honor to be part of the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, the oldest outreach program hosted by the secretary of defense. Together with 38 other civilian leaders, including a former U.S. attorney general, deans and presidents of universities, mayors of large cities, and heads of large foundations, businesses, associations and healthcare institutions, I spent every waking hour for five days immersed in the rigors and experiences of the men and women of the United States Marine Corps, Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard.
Harry S. Truman once said, "America was built on courage and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand." This statement profoundly describes the spirit of every one of the men and women in uniform we met this past week, from generals and admirals to privates and seamen.
We began our journey at a dinner in Alexandria, Va., on the evening of Sunday, May 1. An Army colonel told us about a young lieutenant who put himself in harm's way on the battlefield by replacing the position of the colonel in formation after gaining intelligence that the enemy had learned of the colonel's location. His loyalty to his colonel and his country cost the young lieutenant his life, the victim of an enemy sniper's bullet. His wife and children now continue to pay the price of the ultimate sacrifice. The colonel finished his story by telling us proudly and with as much sincerity as I have ever witnessed, "I am a United States soldier, and I will die for you." As I prepared to retire for the evening, still thinking about the young lieutenant, I turned on the television and learned that Osama Bin Laden was dead.
Over the course of the next five days, we spent from 0530 to 2230 learning about our military. We met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Pentagon. We traveled to Quantico, Va., where we met the men and women of the United States Marine Corps and observed and participated in the training of the Marines. We attended the Memorial at the Pentagon for the victims of 9/11. We traveled to Fort Bragg, N.C., and met with the Army rangers and took part in war-game simulation and training. We consumed MREs (Meals-Ready-to-Eat) for lunch with the soldiers. We traveled to Joint Base McGuire-Dix, Lakehurst, N.J., and learned about the Air Force Expeditionary Center and the Air Force Ravens. We went to the Naval Submarine Base in New London, Conn., and learned about submarine warfare training, and we went to Coast Guard Sector Boston, Mass., and took part in Coast Guard rescue operations and search and seizure procedures.
Throughout the week, we fired multiple types of weapons and participated in training exercises. We traveled on Air Force planes and Marine helicopters, and we toured nuclear submarines and rode in Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) and amphibious assault vehicle (AAV) convoys. But most importantly, and certainly most impressively, we met and spent significant time with the men and women who have dedicated themselves so selflessly to service in the Marines, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Coast Guard. We learned about their way of life and why they serve. We heard their stories of courage, valor and honor, and of hardship, loss and sacrifice.
We heard stories about continuous and ubiquitous courage and valor that you could only imagine to exist in Hollywood scripts; of young men in their early twenties willingly and without hesitation sacrificing their lives to save the lives of their fellow soldiers on the battlefield. We heard stories about soldiers and Marines losing limbs from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). The first words out of their mouths to their comrades while lying on the ground with an arm or leg missing was always, "I'm sorry." Some of them have returned to battle to be with their fellow warriors and fight for their country wearing prosthetic limbs. We heard stories about the proliferation of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and how one soldier's son told his dad, "I haven't seen you smile in two years." We heard stories about being gone for six months at a time, away from families and children. We heard stories of soldiers who have missed most of their kids' childhood and children and spouses who go without a parent or spouse for long periods of time. We heard stories of married couples going a year or more without seeing each other because they are both on multiple deployments to different places. And we heard stories of those who didn't return from deployment - of the sacrifice of life itself and the impact it has on all of those left behind.
I read a political cartoon two days after Bin Laden was killed. It was a picture of two soldiers, one reading about Bin Laden's death and commenting to the other, "Does this mean we get to go home now?" After having spent the day with the Marine Corps Special Forces, it immediately occurred to me how unfortunately out of touch the cartoonist and editor must be and how absurd the cartoon really was. In spite of their hardship and in spite of the multiple sacrifices they make, not one of the servicemen or women we met ever complained about anything. Not one of them had any hint of entitlement, martyrdom, self-pity or fatigue. Every single person we met demonstrated pride, commitment, loyalty, honor and respect for their command, their country, their duty and for each other.
John F. Kennedy once said, "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assume the survival and success of liberty." The one percent of Americans who serve in the Armed Forces are living Kennedy's promise. They live it so that we can experience nearly ten years since 9/11 without a successful terrorist attack on our soil. They live it so that we can go to Little League games and love and laugh and play in peace. They live it so we can educate ourselves, worship as we choose, say what we want and realize our dreams in a free society, whatever those dreams may be.
Relative to some other times in American history, citizens are supporting our troops with vigor, but the 99 percent of us who do not serve can always do more for those who do. There are multiple organizations to which we can give our time or money that support our troops and their families who make so many sacrifices. You can go to www.ourmilitary.mil to learn more about organizations that support our military. I encourage you to do something to actively support them - do it today.
If you do nothing else, the next time you see a man or woman in uniform, simply walk up and say "thank you."