To be honest, I was embarrassed. A few weeks ago, Twitter trolls were combing the Web for information about me and discovered a picture from my Facebook page (which I’d stupidly left public) and immediately started mocking me. It was snapped minutes before I boarded a CH-47 Chinook helicopter to begin my deployment to Forward Operating Base Caldwell in Diyala Province, Iraq. I’m facing the camera, awkwardly holding my M4 carbine (unloaded — all our rifles were unloaded at that moment), with a look that is best described as a combination of frightened and confused. To a public used to seeing heroic images of special forces operators — people like Chris Kyle as portrayed in American Sniper or Marcus Luttrell as portrayed in Lone Survivor — well, I was not that guy. I was a rookie, one part soldier, three parts Gomer Pyle.
Upon reflection, however, my attitude changed. I looked at the picture and felt just a tiny bit of pride. Yes, I was a rookie. No, I had no idea what awaited me. And I was hardly the guy you wanted to lead a raid into an al-Qaeda safe house. Nor was I the first face you’d want hovering over you if you were wounded, but I was there. I showed up, and — like 96 percent of my fellow post-9/11 veterans — I was proud of that fact. Like my ancestors before me — from Valley Forge to the Civil War to World War II — I was a citizen-soldier, an average person trying my best to honorably serve the country I love.
Because so few Americans now serve, with approximately one-half percent of the population on active duty at any given time, we often lose sight of how normal soldiers are.
Because so few Americans now serve, with approximately one-half percent of the population on active duty at any given time, we often lose sight of how normal soldiers are, how much they’re simply ordinary people who’ve made one extraordinary choice: to volunteer to defend a nation at war. And once they volunteer, they’re soon walled off from the rest of the public — sent to bases that are generally far from our major urban population centers or deployed to conflict zones that are far from the headlines — unless, of course, disaster strikes. And so the picture of the American soldiers — and of the American veteran — devolves into stereotypes.
For many conservatives, the veteran is the warrior-hero: the bold and brave guardian of our democracy. For many liberals, the veteran is the hero-victim: the brave but damaged casualty of misbegotten wars. For the radical, the veteran is the mercenary-killer: the deadly racist who spews hate and gunfire at the historically marginalized brown people of the Middle East — the vicious instrument of Halliburton, Exxon, and, worst of all, Zionist Israel.
In reality, the veteran is so much like you that it’s almost disappointing. They have stories, yes, and many suffer the deep pain of loss, of fallen comrades and broken families. Others have shown courage that even they have trouble comprehending. But they’re standing in line next to you opening night at Star Wars, just as eager to see the new broadsword-style Sith lightsaber in action. They’re at the other table at Cracker Barrel, struggling just as hard to control an unruly toddler. Or they’re working next to you, just as stressed by the job as you are. Yes, they faced IEDs, but bad performance reviews ruin their week just like they ruin yours.
I’ll never forget the reaction I received when I came home. Because I was a reservist, I didn’t live in a military community, where deployments were routine. I lived in the middle of civilian-land, and when I first got back, kids treated me as if I was one of the Avengers, just back from fighting Ultron. Adults — even close friends — were oddly respectful even in normal conversation. Strangers thanked me for my service, even when I wasn’t in uniform.
But soon, that all ended. Though I changed in many ways as a result of my deployment, I was still the same strange lawyer who loved video games and was obsessed with the (inevitable) zombie apocalypse. I went from “Captain French” to “Camille’s dad” or “Nancy’s husband,” and my friends soon dropped the reverence. Life was different, yes, but normal — a better version of normal, but normal still.
#share#Yet for a generation beset by declining rates of military service, for an “elite” increasingly divorced from the military that preserves the educational and career opportunities that define their ambitious lives, the very normality of military service — of life as a citizen-soldier — should be cause for sustained self-reflection. Millions of Americans write off military service because they believe they’re just not “that kind of person.” Does that mean you’re not Republican or Democrat, not rich or poor, not black, white, Asian, or Hispanic, not Christian or atheist, not fearful but occasionally brave? Because while some people may have a greater propensity to serve than others — often due to family history — there is no “type” who joins the military, who elects to take his place on the wall.
On Veteran’s Day, I think of the great heroes of American history — people such as Chris Kyle or Alvin C. York — but I think more about the guys I served with, the ordinary men who made that one extraordinary choice. Our nation exists because of people like that. Our nation endures because of people like that. I’m proud to have been in their ranks, and I’m grateful to have had the chance to serve the ordinary hero, the citizen-soldier, the men and women who depart from the routine to risk everything for the nation they love.
— David French is an attorney, a staff writer at National Review, and a veteran of the Iraq War.