"...do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..."

"For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism..."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Maxwell AFB, April 21, 2008

"You will need to challenge conventional wisdom and call things like you see them to subordinates and superiors alike."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, United States Air Force Academy, March 4, 2011

Thursday, January 23, 2014

How Do I Say Goodbye, to What We Had?

As I've turned forty not too long ago, and find myself nearing the end of my military service, and shuffled out of combat operations that are deeply fulfilling, I have found myself a bit more introspective, a little reminiscent, and wondering what the value of my service has been and what it has been for.

As I take account of my life up to this point, as strange as it seems, I'm taken back to my high school years at NAS Keflavik, Iceland and the song from Boys II Men keeps popping up.  Not just because it was a staple song at every school dance and prom in my era, but also because it captures the feeling of painful transition.  It was perfect for most of us military brats, because we were often subjected to such painful transitions.  Forgive me if this blog post is a bit more personal than usual.

I remember high school.  I remember running down a trail into the Icelandic fields of lava rocks toward the approach end of a runway where F-15Cs would tear ass from.  I remember laying close to the approach end in the rocks undetected, and having the Mighty Eagle land over top of me so close I could have hit them with a rock.

I recall knowing several Eagle Driver base commanders, and their kids who were my peers, in the safe comfort of being an Air Force dependent.  I remember telling one's wife my senior year that I was going to study religion in college, and her telling me, "That's good.  The Air Force needs smart people too."  There was no doubt I expected to be a pilot for the Air Force.  I was young and naive but I wanted it badly.  Besides working at the base gym and the Officer's Club, I worked at Baskin Robbins on base, and after I served anybody in a flight suit I always handed them a packet asking for a letter of recommendation.  I got several, though I would soon learn they wouldn't matter for the process.  But they mattered to me.  They were written by the men I wanted to be like, serving my nation in combat and defending the rights of free Americans.  I tried as best I could to convince them I could be like them, in that packet printed from a dot matrix printer.

I wasn't the smartest kid.  I certainly wasn't the best academically.  But I was president of the student council, and a wrestling team captain, and I played soccer and I was in National Honor Society.  Not included in my three page, pre-iPhone selfie, was the fact that I was even a regular cartoon caricature in the weekly base White Falcon comic, Ice Tales, where my character "Francis" was depicted as a muscle bound, mohawk having, egotistical bully.  My high school best friend, now a Naval SNCO, was the cartoonist and he didn't exactly like all my personality traits.  He certainly didn't like my over abundance of confidence, or probably more appropriately, the way I exhibited it.

More importantly, though not to one day becoming a pilot yet essential to becoming a faithful public servant, I valued the knowledge I learned in school.  Mostly from history class.  I was in several AP classes, but AP History was my favorite.  The teacher, the wife of the head chaplain on base, challenged me and my understanding of America.  Was the Civil War really about freeing the slaves?  Has the American government always been on the right side of history?  What are the real motivations in American history, beyond what some history books teach?  What are your assumptions, and are they accurate?  Sure, you have been taught something, but is what you have been taught correct?  She also challenged me in other ways, because we had screaming matches and she sent me to the principal's office at least once.

Still, I knew she liked me.  And I very much appreciated her mentorship.  I appreciated her example as she fought with the school principal over what to teach - a role model for taking a courageous and principled stand against authority.  I was appreciative that she was key to me speaking for Martin Luther King remembrance day at the chapel, and Holocaust remembrance day, and I was able to speak at the air terminal when we welcomed home those returning from Desert Storm (several of the flyers later got my childish packets and a request for a letter of recommendation along with some ice-cream).

One day, I saw in myself a hypocrisy.  As I made gay jokes about a local kid, I realized that what I was doing was no different than others had done, and what I had said on Holocaust remembrance day convicted me.  Our teacher worked hard to show us that evil was inside us, it wasn't an external thing and the worst people in our history books were not monsters.  They were just people.  I realized I wasn't immune from the potential evil inside each of us, just because I might have said a few "nice things" in an essay.  I realized that I was a hypocrite.  Nobody had to challenge me, it just one day hit me that my actions were not measuring up to my professed and valued principles.

Later in college I would learn from a sociology class that my operating values and my professed values were in conflict.  At any rate, I didn't like that feeling, and it led me to realize a flaw in myself and to take steps to improve myself as a person, recognizing the value and liberty of others, who lived a life just a fraction different than my own (separated by a chromosome or so), but who did not in any way trespass my rights by exercising their own, and as a result of the guilt I felt, I grew to more truly appreciate liberty beyond simply making cute speeches at the chapel.

I still keep in touch with my history teacher to this day, and I think it's safe to say she's still one of my biggest fans.  I know it's also safe to say that I still torment and aggravate her as I did in my youth.  I have no doubt she wouldn't have it any other way.  We are taught that friction is impolite or uncouth, but the reality is that friction produces light.  It's not only healthy, it's essential for truth and for justice.

Fast forward for a moment.  I recently had a going away lunch at my current assignment, which I will be leaving in a few days, and for the first time in my career I heard an O-6 - weapons officer - F-15C fighter pilot, describe me as a role model for speaking my mind and challenging authority.  Others spoke about my courage and making people think about important issues.  I've never since high school cared about the value heaped upon me by others, and that has challenged many a commander in the military as a result, because I entered the military already knowing my value.  What many people don't know about my callsign, is that it's not just to me a legacy of nick names for military men in my family.  For me, it points back to words by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, where he wrote, "Some men are like rhinoceroses.  They don't respond properly to social conditioning."  Huxley was right, as he was on so many things about our world today, and I will note in his novel that the most intelligent, who had the courage to challenge authority, were imprisoned in Iceland.  Iceland of all places was a leper colony for the courageous and intelligent.

I feel like my life has come full circle, in a way, and it brings me back to Boys II Men.

My AP History teacher also impressed upon me another valuable lesson.  She left no doubt in my mind as I sat in old school desks, that she was an activist in the civil rights movement before hitching with her military husband and educating military children.  She left no doubt, because she proudly claimed that mantle.  What she doesn't know, but will when she reads this blog post, is that I felt guilty even then, for not having the opportunity to stand for America as she did during that period.  To lay it on the line.  I can't thank her enough for the lessons on great Americans such as Dr. Martin Luther King that taught me, beyond what the military ever did, what it means to be courageous, and to live with honor, and to sacrifice for our country.

There should be no line between the activist who loves America, and the military person, the cop, or the judge who is sworn to protect America.  There should be no division.

But there is a massive division, and there has been a huge change for the worst in the imperfect people of America, who have forgotten, or who were not as lucky as myself to learn, to value their birthright as a free people.

And it makes me terribly sad, as if we have to say goodbye, to what we had....

But I'll harness that sadness, and realize it is the opportunity I had wished for to measure up in this nation built on the shoulders of giants - most of them unnamed, unrecognized, victims of police dogs and fire hoses and lynch mobs.  Mobs that I have found myself screaming at today, "Do you not understand America?  Do you not value her?  Do you not understand what you are doing?"

As an American who cares about his nation, and the rights of all Americans, there is no doubt that I am the minority now.  So I will take heart and realize that I have been given the chance to make good, like Dr. King did, like Malcolm did, like Frederick Douglas, like so many other unnamed courageous Americans did to fight for their God given rights.  There can be no question concerning those great Americans, and how they laid it on the line for this nation and our Constitution.

Far, far more than I ever did in the military.  While I started this blog post sad, I'm heartened by the opportunity to truly measure up as an American.

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