In the wake of one of the most divisive political campaigns in our nation’s history, this Veterans Day, more than any before, has drawn me to focus on the true meaning of service.
Last fall, I patrolled through a village in southern Niger alongside a small U.S. military team and their Nigerien partners. Just before we had arrived, members of the extremist group Boko Haram had swept through the village, looting food supplies and burning women and children alive in their huts. The carnage was evident all around us — in the smoldering wreckage of homes and in the haunted eyes of the community. We were there to speak with the village elders, to identify ways to improve security and to meet the needs of the local population.
As I walked along, my mind went back to patrols years before in Iraq, when I had been in uniform, leading young men on the dangerous roads around Baghdad and Anbar Province. This time, although I walked next to U.S. troops, I was a civilian, working for a charitable organization that supports the safety and success of deployed U.S. troops. The connection between the two experiences was a simple one: a commitment to serve.
Service is the core trait we honor this holiday. To be sure, this trait includes the incredible commitment and sacrifice of my brothers and sisters who have worn the uniform. But, in these tumultuous times, it also should reflect the notion of service as a key component of the American identity, and it should motivate us all to redouble our service to each other, our country and the world.
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In my civilian capacity, I have the privilege of working with an incredible group of veterans — men and women who volunteered to defend this country and the values it represents in the chaotic and uncertain conflicts of the 21st century. They fought for it, some bled for it and all endured immense hardships because they believed in America. Moreover, they have chosen to continue serving after they shed the uniform, willingly returning to familiar battlefields to support their former comrades in arms, advance the ideals of freedom and democracy, and ease the suffering of those most affected by conflict.
I also have the honor of working with an immensely dedicated group of people who never wore the uniform but are nevertheless driven to serve their country. Hailing everywhere from California to Pennsylvania, with backgrounds and beliefs as diverse as any in our country, they are united by a common cause — a desire to serve this country, represent what is best about its values and ideals, and ease suffering around the world.
In my mind, both groups are deserving of our respect and admiration, and both offer an example of how we can all serve.
But before focusing on that point, a question. What drives this desire to serve?
I cannot presume to speak on both groups’ behalf, but I can offer as a proxy my motivation. I spent some of my formative years in Iraq, first just after the invasion, when initial hopes for peace sputtered, and then during the height of the surge, when success was not a foregone conclusion but we owed it to our country and the people of Iraq to give it all we had. My service was in no way extraordinary — some had it easier, some far harder — but those experiences cemented the importance of service in my mind. What I learned during those years in the desert made me believe in service more than ever before.
Why? Because of what America represents, even in these uncertain times. As a nation, we often lose sight of the advantages we enjoy and take for granted the very framework upon which our country is based. An inclusive society, a messy yet functioning democracy, a dynamic economy and great security based upon geographic isolation. And yet, in my work, both in the military and now, I am reminded again and again by people all over the world — from Syria and Iraq to Niger to Ukraine — how much these ideas matter and what a source of inspiration they are to those struggling for peace and opportunity. In the world’s toughest places, my colleagues and I have witnessed the power of the American idea, and we feel compelled to safeguard that idea. Not solely for our nation, but also to do our small part in the betterment of humankind.
And, as we veterans strive to accomplish that task, we are joined by civilians who are equally as motivated, who have thought long and hard about what it means to serve and have taken up the mantle willingly.
This Veterans Day, as we both reflect upon the sacrifices made by those who have worn the uniform and recover from a bitter political campaign, let us ask ourselves if we have done our part to make the world a better place. That does not necessarily entail service in some foreign land like Niger or Iraq. Rather, it means that every one of us has done what we can to fully embody the values and ideals we as a country hold so dear and to which others around the world aspire.
Isaac Eagan is a former Army infantryman who now serves as vice president of operations for Spirit of America, a privately funded nonprofit organization that works alongside the U.S. military providing humanitarian assistance in conflict zones. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.