As I enter my nineteenth year of service in the United States Army Reserve, I have to reflect on something that happens almost every time I am in public while in uniform. Whether in an airport, on the Amtrak, in a restaurant, or most anyplace else, people of all ages and backgrounds regularly approach me and thank me for my service to the country. Sometimes they will strike up a conversation, asking where I am stationed or what my military occupational specialty (or “MOS”) is. Other times people will offer to buy me coffee or lunch or a drink, an extremely generous gesture for someone they have never met.
And, yet, I do not always know how to respond when someone says to me, “thank you for your service.” Because in fact I feel like the privileged one.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s an incredibly gracious sentiment and I find myself saying the same when I encounter servicemembers in public, as I do for police officers, firefighters, and other first responders. And yet I cannot help but think how lucky I am that I had the opportunity to serve and continue to do so when so many others cannot.
I did not come from a military family and, frankly, did not know what to expect when I was commissioned in early 2001. I never thought that, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Army would become such an integral part of my personal and professional life. And, yet, three overseas tours and nearly two decades later my military service has resulted in some of the best friends I could ever imagine, incredible life experiences and professional opportunities, and of course meeting my amazing wife who also served in the Army.
For a middle class kid from Long Island who never left the country until his late 20s, I have served in military positions in Germany, Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, Uganda, Djibouti, and elsewhere throughout Africa. Stateside, I have worked in reserve billets at U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, at Army Headquarters at the Pentagon, and now at the Army JAG School in Charlottesville. My service and security clearance have opened up incredible opportunities in national security positions at the Justice Department and with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
When I came down with life-threatening lymphoma in my early-30s, my first thought after worrying about my pregnant wife and child was whether the Army would medically separate me. And, yet, my Army family stuck with me and was incredibly supportive in getting us through one of the darkest times of my life.
I am also cognizant of how many Americans yearn to join the active or reserve military but cannot due to age, illness, or other limitations. For years before the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy was lifted, I felt for my Army brothers and sisters who were forced to serve in silence. And while I shared in their happiness when that policy was finally changed, I am wary that others are still prevented from serving due to forces outside their control.
So while I am incredibly appreciative each time someone acknowledges my service, I must say that I am the one that feels blessed to have had this incredible opportunity. My time in uniform has exposed me to some of the best men and women this country has to offer, given me amazing adventures, and bestowed on me a greater respect for Americans from all walks of life. I am truly a better person due to the Army and would not trade my time in uniform for anything in the world.
Happy Independence Day, everyone!