This We'll Defend
As a veteran, you’d think I’d remember that Veterans Day is in November and Memorial Day is in May. But I always mix them up. To me, the holidays are essentially one and the same. On both holidays I find myself remembering and honoring my close friends, who served or still serve in our military, and those who gave their lives in service. To me, it’s this very service which binds them together into one big group. Each individual unique in his or her own way, yet when I think of one, I think of them all. Like Tim O’Brien does in his book The Things They Carried, or the way NPR captures that here. The memories of them all jumbled together in a ball of emotion so frustratingly hard to articulate, that it often makes my heart want to explode. But the one thing that always stands clear and tangible is the overwhelming sense of luck. That I got to live in a time and a place, where I was lucky enough to have served with, fought in combat with and been surrounded by such amazing individuals. And even luckier that I get to call them friends.
I joined the military after graduating college. At the ripe old age of 24 I was ancient for a new enlistee. On December 31st, 1996, I spent my first night in the Army, lying on a bunk that felt eerily like it came from a prison, passing the new year with complete strangers who were all much younger and wondering, “What the f*** did I just get myself into?” Despite that initial trepidation, turns out that joining the Army was the single best path I ever chose. I joined an organization that was comprised of the United States in a way that I had never experienced before.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m originally from northern Minnesota and (spoiler alert) we’re pretty white up there. I grew up in a town of roughly 2,000 people, almost all of whom were white. Luckily for me, Minnesotans have always been accepting of people for who they are as individuals. We respected difference, because we respected an individual’s right to choose his or her own path. So, even though I grew up in such a homogenous environment, I was always taught to respect others and appreciate their differences, even if I didn’t fully understand them or relate to them. It was more than tolerance, it was acceptance.
Given the timing of this Veterans Day so near to our recent election, I feel this sentiment of acceptance is especially important. Every American, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, level of education, religion, economic background, and any other box one could possibly check, has a right to choose his or her own path in this country. We all deserve the same liberties, the same amount of respect and acceptance for our unique and beautiful differences. We have a right to use whichever bathroom we identify with. We have a right to love and marry whomever we want. We have a right to choose our faith. We have the right to own a gun, if we so choose.
Some would argue that many of these aren’t necessarily constitutionally guaranteed rights. But they are guaranteed. When we talk about veterans, we often hear that they serve or gave their lives to ensure our freedom. That we owe our collective freedom to their sacrifice. If that’s the case, then their service guarantees our freedom, our rights. We don’t get to dishonor their memory or their current service by choosing how we apply that freedom, or by limiting it or defining it by one group’s set of morals. That freedom, those rights, belong to all of us. Collectively. Equally.
The Army motto is “This we’ll defend” and it was meant to forge a unity among soldiers from differing backgrounds in order to protect something greater than any one of us. It’s about realizing that in order to guarantee freedom for all of us, we have to guarantee freedom to each of us. It doesn’t mean we create a homogenous country, but rather we appreciate, celebrate and accept that being American comes in every human form possible. That guaranteeing our own rights is best achieved through defending the rights of others. Use today to remember and honor veterans, who without knowing you, chose to fight for you and stand up for your rights.