I was born at Fort Carson hospital, to a young West Point graduate from Puerto Rico, and his wife, a beautiful young refugee of the Cuban revolution. My earliest memories are of the U.S. Army taking care of us while we waited for him to come back from Vietnam. One of the first words that I learned to say was cótelo!, from the Spanish word for “helicopter.” My father belongs to the third generation of my family on the Puerto Rican side to have fought alongside Americans in our wars.
Many years later, when I was hired on at the Pentagon as a speechwriter, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was returning to the nest. During my time there, I had the humbling honor of working with the most dedicated, kind, and brilliant group of people I have ever known — political appointees, civil servants, and military alike.
But there was something special about the military folks — a halo they were scarcely aware of. Once, I was in the front office of an assistant secretary, surrounded by civilians chatting about this-and-that, when suddenly the door swung open, and a bunch of uniforms started walking in. The first of them, a junior officer, looked at me (because I was the closest to the door) and said simply, “General Eikenberry.” With this curt announcement, the entire room fell silent, as General Eikenberry (then commander of our forces in Afghanistan) entered with his entourage.
Those in uniform always observe an unmistakable deference to the civilian leadership. Even colonels dealing with those of clearly inferior civilian rank were always punctilious in their respectfulness. Civilian control of the military is a fundamental principle of the Constitution that they have sworn to uphold.
But there is another side to that coin: a recognition on the part of the civilians that their decisions mean life or death for those in uniform. It didn’t take long for me to appreciate how heavily this responsibility weighs on representatives of the people, those who hold that power of life and death in their hands. In exchange for the deference of the military, we show reverence — reverence for the sacrifices that they and their families make; reverence for their commitment to preserving our way of life; reverence for the fact that, just as we have put our lives in their hands, they have put their lives in ours.
After a while at the Pentagon, I came to behold those in uniform as a unique species, greater than mere mortals. The men and women of our armed forces — those living every bit as much as those who have fallen — are our guardian angels. At the commandment of our elected representatives, whether they think the commandment ill-advised or well-advised, they will sacrifice their lives for us. And while we may fail in our commitment to be careful with their lives, they do not fail in their commitment to us.
There is no way to thank them, really. And they expect no thanks. Apart from thinking through the ultimate policy issues as well as we can, a responsibility we too often shirk for petty politics, the most one can do to thank them, I suppose, is to enjoy to the fullest that way of life that they nurture and protect; to nurture and protect that way of life in all the ways they can’t; and to follow their example by working hard, and being kind, and being always ethical.
And don’t forget to say “thank you” once in a while to those guardian angels who are still among us. Next year, we will be remembering some of them on Memorial Day.