Veterans Day each year is an opportunity for Americans to give pause and pay respect to the men and women who have served in the Armed Forces to defend the country.
It is a celebrated holiday for all, but means more to veterans personally. Veterans celebrate this day as the rest of Americans do, but with a deep reflection on days during their service that have come to pass and the service members who had an impact on their life.
I enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when I was 19, just a year out of high school. During a time when I wanted to do something in life and did not know what that was, this tragic event called me into service. I left for Basic Combat Training and Military Police School at Fort Leonard Wood Missouri, in summer 2002. The next four months were hard and at times I wondered at night how I had ended up in those barracks, far away from home. The bunk-mates I had, however, always encouraged me to “cheer up” on bad days when the six hours of broken up sleep after a 15-hour training day didn’t seem to be enough. I would return that support to my fellow recruits when they needed it and before we knew it, we graduated and had become soldiers.
In February of 2003, I was deployed to southern Iraq to serve as a military police prison guard, tasked with patrolling roads and detaining enemy prisoners of war. Though I had different faces in my unit than those at basic training, we served each other in the same way as we did during boot camp. We provided each other optimistic encouragement at times of sadness or isolation. Veterans often experience -“nostalgia”- when serving far away from family and friends. These experiences can be difficult, but also provide an opportunity to create friendships for life.
These friendships and the encouragement I received in the military granted me the spirit needed to go on to use the Post-9-11 GI Bill, and earn a Master’s Degree from the University of Illinois at Springfield. I found the desire to work in Washington D.C. during college, to advocate for veterans and those people that would follow a path of a career after military service. This Veterans Day, I spent the day with a fellow soldier from my boot camp platoon. It was a celebration, and a chance to reflect back on our time together in the military.
These experiences are shared across generations of veterans. VetsFirst Committee Chair Terry Moakley’s service in the military during the Vietnam era led him to push for for increased rights for disabled veterans following his return to the community after acquiring a spinal cord injury while serving stateside on active duty. In the late 1970’s he fought to make public transit accessible and he has since worked to build coalitions of veterans and advocate on a federal level.
The path to advocacy I have taken was similar to Mr. Moakley’s. I have also used my experience in the military to identify the needs in our veteran population and then bring solutions to solve them to national and state policy makers. This past summer, I appeared before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, informing the Committee of better ways to help service members make informed decisions about their educational benefits. This September I was hired as VetsFirst’s Director of Veterans Policy.
During this month when we remember the service of our veterans I encourage you to ask a veteran, perhaps you do or do not know, to talk more about the service members that influenced their journey while wearing the U.S. uniform. Each and every story is unique, sometimes humorous, and always inspiring.