Friday, 18 November 2011

Seeing An Old Photo Through New Eyes On My First Real Veterans Day

I had passed the photo in the hallway showing the smiling handsome young Naval officer in uniform literally thousands of times over the years, occasionally pausing to marvel at the fact that this was my Dad when he was in his late teens. He had told me many times of his story of being able to study at Penn's engineering school because of the Navy's V-12 Program, and how he had served on a ship in Pearl Harbor after the attack. But frankly I never had any real perspective on that part of his life because I just could never relate to it. What did I know about military service? With the exception of a few people, most people of my generation had not served and we had little or no direct relationship with the military.
As many people figured out (probably only when they went to try to retrieve their mail or make a deposit at the bank), this past Friday, November 11, was Veterans Day. Other than the practical annoyances it created, I readily admit that, like most others I know, I had planned to go about my Veterans Day much like I had always done, acknowledging this Federal holiday with the usual detachment and with mere passing interest gleaned from stories in the various news media. But this Veterans Day turned out quite different than I ever expected as the result of some experiences I was fortunate to have had over the past several weeks. And I have to say, it was a real eye opener for me on many levels.
In late October, I attended the Coach K Leadership Summit at the Fuqua School of Business at my alma mater Duke University, a unique gathering of a couple dozen high-level execs and business leaders. This year's Summit included not only people like AOL Founder Steve Case, David Gergen and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, but top U.S. Military leaders General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Bob Brown, the Commanding General of the Army's Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning. Surprisingly, I realized that these men were the only currently active military people I had ever really come in direct contact with in any meaningful way.
What struck me immediately (aside from the fact that both Generals were whip smart, engaging, funny and accessible) was their clear and deep commitment to lifelong service in pursuit of a greater good. These men didn't just talk the talk; they had dedicated their entire lives to the service of our country in ways that to most of us would be unfathomable. It struck me that the vast majority of people in the upper socioeconomic bracket of our country have become almost completely removed from any significant connection to or contact with the military. And it also seemed to me that this was symptomatic of a much larger issue.
About a week later back in LA, my wife and I were invited to a group dinner where we got to know Kaj Larsen, a CNN investigative correspondent whom we had previously heard about from our daughter after he had spoken at her high school last year. During the evening, Kaj and several of his friends were introduced and asked to speak to the group about an organization they had formed called Team Rubicon. It turns out that Kaj and the friends accompanying him at the dinner were, unbeknownst to us until that moment, ex-Navy Seals, Black Hawk helicopter rescue pilots, and Special Ops who had come together after retiring from the service to volunteer as the first responders in disaster situations.
Realizing they could use their unique and highly developed skills and discipline for a different kind of mission, these courageous young men had thrown on their backpacks and hiked into the epicenter of the Haiti earthquake where they rescued babies from the rubble, performed over 180 amputations using only Motrin and saved countless lives in the precious hours of the immediate aftermath of the event before the Red Cross and the Israelis could set up operations. And from that mission, Team Rubicon was born. And in speaking with these men after the dinner, you couldn't help but consider them the coolest, smartest, most regular, humble and able people we had ever met (and according to my wife they were also so good looking they could have made up a calendar). We were so impressed with these men and what they were doing that it made us want to help support them in any way we could and spread the word about their incredible service organization. And it also gave us a completely different perspective on who and what "veterans" were.
Last week Kaj invited me to be his guest at the Veterans Day ceremony at the Reagan Library to meet his best friend, Eric Greitens, another Duke grad and ex-Navy Seal whom he had trained and served with (and with whom he had co-founded "The Mission Continues" organization). Eric, a Rhodes scholar and the author of the NY Times best-selling book The Heart and the Fist , would be giving the keynote speech at the event.
I arrived at the Library and walked in among a couple hundred veterans of all ages and racial mixes along with their families, amidst Revolutionary and Civil War re-enactments and displays of flags and military gear of all shapes and sizes. After witnessing a ceremonial flyover directly overhead, I took my seat in the auditorium where a fantastic orchestra and choir from the Southern California Baptist University performed rousing renditions of our national and military anthems. We all recited the Pledge of Allegiance before a military Color Guard presenting arms and colors, and Eric then gave an impressive, impassioned, inspired speech (note: he is really someone to watch as a future leader).
After Eric's remarks, the veterans in attendance from the various military branches were all asked to stand when the orchestra played their branch's respective anthem. It was pretty hard not to be moved and feel proud and patriotic. But most of all, I felt a little shame for not previously seriously comprehending the kind of commitment and service these great men and women gave and continue to give for all of us. And I asked myself, why is it that, despite a lot of lip service, so many of us in this country take the military and those that serve for granted? And how is it that we have become so desensitized to the loss of life and limb these people sacrifice to defend our freedom?

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