When I was a young child, I once thought about about joining the military. I'd been reading books on the Civil War, and later, on World War II, and they had my attention. I was entranced by the pictures and news reels of shiny military machines without much considering why they were needed in the first place, or what they could do when utilized.
By the time I was in junior high school (we didn't have middle schools then), I kept hearing about a war in a place called Vietnam. By the time I graduated from high school in 1969, the war was still going on. And escalating. People my age were being drafted to fight in steamy, forgotten jungles, and for what? To protect the Constitution? To staunch communism? To feed the military-industrial complex? I don't know.
So I went to college. And guess what? Four years later, the war is still raging. People my age were dying. Somehow, I'd lucked out with a ridiculously high lottery number that kept me out of the draft. I didn't have to burn my draft card. I didn't have to run off to Canada.
So I never made the decision to enlist, and didn't think much about it afterwards.
The family tree doesn't show much in the way of military service anyway. I had some great uncles who served in the Union Army in the Civil War, along with a great, great grandfather. There was an uncle who saw combat in World War II. And one of my brothers, David, enlisted when he came of age. Although he was stationed mostly in the icicle jungles of Alaska, he is considered a Vietnam-era vet, having volunteered before the war ended in 1975. If there are other family members who served, I don't know about them.
The way I see it, once you make the decision to enlist and wear the uniform, you're a hero. I've had some debates about this. Some think heroism is defined by physical sacrifice and honor, and while I agree, I think the moment you put on that uniform and have your picture made with the American flag behind you, you've already made a life-altering decision. You sacrifice certain rights (especially in basic training) that you've taken an oath to protect and defend.
Even clerk-typists, or cooks, or support troops, might be called upon to take up arms at any moment. You never know. Enlisting is an amazing step to take.
But not all of us are meant to be warriors. That needs to be understood, too.
I thought about this a lot this weekend, watching the memorial services for Senator John McCain, and the sacrifices he made. Could I have endured what he endured as a prisoner of war? Made the decisions he made? Unlikely.
As the years passed, as I read my Civil War books, or watched World War II on the History Channel, or, significantly in my lifetime, videos of Vietnam, what it means to be military takes on its own clarity and sense of purpose.
Sometimes it's good to get a refresher course on what it all means. And requires.