On July 7, 1982, I raised my right hand and swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same, as had and have done all members of the United States military forces before and after me. By virtue of the relatively peaceful times in which I served, I never had to test my commitment to that oath in the face of live fire or combat, but many of the men and women who took that oath with me that day remain on active duty and are in Iraq or Afghanistan today.
My appreciation for them and for Veterans Day, when we honor them and all the soldiers, sailors, marines and aviators before them for their enduring service, is deepened by the fact that I am the scion of soldiers who actually did have to test their mettle in combat, and (fortunately) returned from “over there” to tell tales to their children and grandchildren.
I keep my late father’s miniature ribbons in a box on my desk; his full-scale medals are in a shadow box that my sister made. As I look at them, from left to right, I see that he earned: The Legion of Merit, The Bronze Star (with combat V), The Meritorious Service Medal (three awards), The Navy Commendation Medal (with Silver Star), The Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal (two awards), The National Defense Service Medal, The Vietnam Service Medal (with four stars), The Humanitarian Service Medal, The Vietnam Cross of Gallantry (two awards, with Silver Star and Palm and Frame), and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal. Not included in the miniatures are the Presidential Unit Commendation (one star), the Combat Action Ribbon (one star) and the Lebanese Order of the Cedar, of which my father is one of only a very, very small number of American recipients, for his work with Ambassador Philip Habib and his service as Executive Officer of the 32nd Marine Amphibious Unit in Beirut in 1982-83.
These medal were all earned in onerous situations, far away from family, but we were fortunate in that my father actually came home to receive them. I have a photo in my office of a four-year old me and my mother admiring my father’s Bronze Star on the day it was awarded. I saw him pin on many of the other medal over the years. In 2002, he was buried wearing an identical set of miniature ribbons in a cemetery reserved for those who had sworn the oath that he and I both swore, professing our willingness to sacrifice our lives for the Nation and its people.
My father’s father was also a warrior, who set off to serve in World War II shortly after my father was born. He spent nearly four years in North Africa and Italy, surviving some of the most storied and hard-fought campaigns in a truly brutal war. He returned with an utterly astonishing photo album, including pictures of the bombing of Algiers, the siege of Naples, and his camp, in which his North Carolina-based unit attempted to evoke their home by naming the aisle between their tents “Rue De Albemarle.”
My mother’s father and great uncle also served in World War II, and I have records of many of my forebears serving in the Civil War (foremost among them: Colonel Charles J. Colcock) and the Revolutionary War (where my direct ancestor Colonel Ann Hawkes Hay served the American cause before we even formally existed as a Nation). I believe in the importance of service to Nation on an intellectual basis, but I also think I feel it on a gut basis, as a part of my genetic make-up, a cultural, residual memory passed down as instinct from the warriors who served the Nation before me.
So I applaud and admire them on Veterans Day, as I applaud and admire all those who served with them, and all those who serve today. It is with awe and humility that I ponder the sacrifices they made and make so that I can sit here and type this missive to you today. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.