Heroes by default

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Joshua Kleinholz
  • 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Veterans Day 2013 comes on the heels of what has now been 12 years of constant war. Since 2001, America has been sending some of its best and brightest across the world in support of various combat and humanitarian efforts, most notably the prolonged conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. For 12 years back and forth they've gone; and back and forth they've gone again.

Though numbers are disputed, direct US combat action in Vietnam took place over a span of approximately 11 years from 1964 to 1975. Service members returning from our country's longest war witnessed first-hand the consequences resulting from a loss of public support for a war effort. Many of these men and women were taunted, spit on and shunned for following orders to fight a war they were forced into by the draft. Societal factors at home made the war overwhelmingly unpopular, and returning service members were the unfortunate targets of blame.

We like to think that could never happen again. We like to think that things are somehow different now. But the truth is, we are now the service members fighting America's new longest war.

What makes us any different?

If anything, advancements in multimedia technology have put the military under even closer scrutiny than ever before. Not only are we still involved in conflict overseas, but we are continually creating conflict at home as well. Countless cases of fiscal irresponsibility, sexual assault and other misconduct in the military have made headlines consistently in the past few years, with one notable case taking place at the very core of the Air Force: Basic Military Training at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas. The recent controversy has us now fighting two wars: one overseas that's already the longest in our nation's history, and a fresh new self-inflicted struggle to maintain our reputation at home. With so much seemingly going wrong, it begs the question of how much time we have left before all the support at home runs out.

My question was answered instantaneously as the train of 32 sage-green boots entered the crowded multipurpose room at Doris French Elementary School in Las Vegas, Nev. A group of 16 Nellis Airmen representing a wide variety of Air Force career fields volunteered to take part in the school's Veteran's Day festivities alongside veterans of every American conflict since World War II. Gasps and excited shrieks filled the air as we channeled in and found our seats for the assembly. Teachers scrambled and "hushed" here and there calling out names trying to reign in the most enthusiastic of students but it was no use. They were all so overjoyed to be interacting with US military members up close and personal even before they knew anything about the lifestyle or achievements of the person behind the stripes. No questions are asked as to the true character of the man or woman under the uniform. To America's youngest generation we will always be heroes by default.

During the assembly, each military member was asked to stand and be individually recognized for their commitment and dedication to service. One by one we stood to a hail of cheers and applause. Military representation in that room ranged from me, a 19 year-old with just over one year in the Air Force, to a retired Army officer who stormed the beaches that fateful June day in 1944. In the moment that gentleman acknowledged the crowd with a modest wave from his wheelchair, I was put in the same position as the sea of starry eyed children sitting on the floor across from us.

This man demanded my respect and admiration not through boasts or theatrical stories of his courageous adventures, but through the way he carried himself, and the way he treated people he came in contact with. His profound pride in the profession of arms was evidenced by the way he still meticulously maintained a dress uniform he hadn't been required to wear in more than 30 years. Although he would never admit it, that man deserved every clap of the standing ovation he received.

Believe it or not this is the same way we are viewed by America's youngest children every day. No matter what branch of the service, no matter what part you play and no matter what you've seen or achieved during your career, the US military uniform will always afford you a certain level of respect and admiration among those you've sworn and are trusted to protect. However you choose to see it, this is a responsibility not to be taken lightly: Do you live up to the hype?

For many of us who try to be honest with ourselves the answer may very well be "No."

Upon joining the military, we all agreed that from that point onward we would be held to a higher life-standard than our civilian counterparts. In order to defend the best, we must commit to being the best of the best.

In making that commitment you've promised to always strive to be the best version of yourself by working towards excellence in your work, social life, physical fitness and other areas of life. Even if your answer to the question was a "No," there are simple choices that can be made every day to turn that around in no time at all.

Make the choice to be the best at your job. Make the choice to eat better and live well. Make the choice to volunteer and give back to the surrounding community. Make the choice to push yourself and run your fastest mile-and-a-half in years and when put into compromising social situations, make the choice to take a step back and do the right thing. Make these choices not only because you swore an oath to do so, but because of how they can benefit you as a person.

No matter what career field you're in, remember that as long as you wear that uniform your job is never normal; you are never normal. You enlisted not into a job but into a lifestyle, the military war-ready lifestyle. You are expected not only to excel at work and in your educational pursuits, but also to embody the high standards touted by the military as a role model in your community.

We all signed the papers; we all did the pushups; we all completed the Airman's Run and we all graduated BMT. We all made that sacrifice and for that the children at Doris French Elementary will always commend you. But how long do you want to be thanked for a decision you made five, to ten, to twenty or more years ago? Live every day to a higher standard than those who don't wear the uniform because the next time a child runs up to thank you for your service, their admiration will mean that much more.