What does it mean to volunteer to fight, and die if necessary, for your country and beliefs? For the nearly 2.3 million Americans who serve, it means everything - their lives will be completely changed, they may travel to distant places where they would otherwise never go, and they will totally surrender their will to their superiors.
Less than 1% of the total U.S. population makes this decision, and they'll never be the same for it.
We could all learn a lot from these elite few; here are just a few of the most significant lessons we've gathered in our time working with veterans.
1. Loyalty to your squad.
The phrase "No man left behind" has come to embody the ethos by which our military servicemen and women live their lives - and it stems from practices they've employed in their careers. Paul Springer, an associate professor of comparative military studies at the Air Command and Staff College, attributes this loyalty to the switch from compulsory military service for young men via the draft to a military that is now comprised of volunteers: "It's a kind of contract with the service - you promise to serve us, we promise not to leave you."
This spirit of loyalty inspired the Hollywood blockbuster Black Hawk Down, about the 1993 mission to save fallen American military helicopter pilots in Mogadishu.
And it's this spirit of loyalty that characterizes veterans today - like this group of vets who turned out, en masse, for the memorial of a brother in arms who had no biological family to mourn him.
2. It's not all about you.
In fact, it rarely is. This doesn't have to be discouraging - after all, how much good can really be accomplished if we act with no regard for the welfare of those around us, be they family, or friends or coworkers? As one veteran, fighting for the liberation of disenfranchised populations, remembers: "Sometimes we had to take care of more than 3,000 civilians in our small village. These people were completely terrified and had no place else to go. They completely depended on our protection...I learned that there are indeed things in the world more important than your silly life."
This maxim is cutting, and true -- and in line with our values: "Jesus said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.”
3. The value of freedom.
America is a unique country, because we are founded on the principle that each of us has certain unalienable rights - those of "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." These rights, we say, are inherent to each person - hence being "unalienable" - yet it is the duty of the government to "secure" them. Our military personnel and veterans know the true meaning of this cost, because they have seen places where this notion of unalienable human rights doesn't exist - places where women have no voice, where a person's birth determines their future and where the desire for education is a radical notion.
And our veterans understand the importance of these freedoms - to live, speak, worship, dress and believe as we wish - because they have signed up to give their lives for them, if need be.
We would do well to remember this sacrifice as we exercise our rights, knowing that our free speech, and our right to pursue happiness, has been secured by those who serve.
At Serving California, we've learned a lot from the veterans we encounter and we have a deep gratitude to them for their service, and for the lessons they teach us. That's why, in turn, we partner with The Mighty Oaks Warrior Programs to give back to those who signed up to give it all. If you or a loved one is a veteran who would benefit from these programs, please sign up.