This week has been an amazing experience; one that has reminded me of duty, honor and country in a very direct and personal way. I’ve spent much of this week with many truly heroic men and women who serve in uniform; people I look up to, admire, respect, and can only hope I could ever match in values and service.
Today, I had reserved seating to watch President Bush give an inspiring speech about service and sacrifice at Arlington National Cemetery. I met “Lt. Dan” from Forest Gump (Gary Sinese), who emceed the ceremony at Arlington, as well as numerous Generals, Admirals, Commandants and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. This morning, we met two people who were members of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division (two of the only six remaining soldiers from the famous “Band of Brothers“). We’ve met recipients of the Purple Heart, the Flying Cross, Silver Star, and a number of other extraordinary honors all week long. Earlier in the week I sat at the desk of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and experienced many other momentous times with a wonderful group of people whom I will share much more about shortly–Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA). As I think about the many wonderful experiences I’ve had and shared this week, it’s actually the veterans that I’ve met who are the people for whom I will forever remember, and to whom I–we–will forever be in debt.
My most notable experience this week was with a man named Ken, with whom I was privileged to sit next to over dinner with PVA a couple nights ago here in DC. My age, married, educated, and with an uplifting, cheerful and genuinely inspiring disposition, Ken is incredibly humble for his remarkable gift of courage and honor, which he has demonstrated time and again. Ken has served in the U.S. Army Special Forces for 8 years. He is now a recovering patient at Walter Reed Medical Center, where he was sent to treat severe injuries he sustained while engaged in combat in Afghanistan.
Ken served THREE separate eight month tours of duty in Afghanistan, most recently on the Pakistani border. During his last tour, he engaged enemy forces in a way so as to draw fire away from his comrades and towards himself. In the process, he was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). He lost half of one of his arms and much of one of his eyeballs, severing the nerves in the other arm, and causing a number of facial scars, wounds and severed muscles. While it is utterly AMAZING what modern prosthesis technology can do to restore capability and mobility, his injuries are nonetheless grievous and debilitating.
What struck me most about Ken is how he sees life. While many might say he can’t have much of a LIFE after such injuries, quite the opposite appears to be to true. He is energetic, active, upbeat, and optimistic. More than almost anyone I’ve met. “You don’t have to look far down the street to see there are always people worse off than me,” he said. He is optimistic not only for his own future, but for those of a Middle Eastern nation that has never known the freedom they now have–thanks to soldiers like him, even if he’d never admit to it. Afghanistan, in it’s more than 5,000 year history, had never had an election, constitution, or declaration of any freedoms. Afghanis could not do any of the things we take for granted — speaking freely, worshipping or not, or even studying for a formal education. He not only believed in the cause of liberty, he volunteered to go in defense of our nation, and in service to not only America, but the Afghani people. As he told me with a gleam in his eye, he simply has “absolutely no regrets”. As a matter of fact, he asked to return to his combat unit as soon as he leaves Walter Reed. He was understandably refused, but rather than accept a perfectly honorable discharge that he’s CERTAINLY entitled to, he wanted to re-enlist and continue the fight as a combat instructor to other soldiers.
Hearing the stories of the veterans I’ve met this week has been positively awe-inspiring, humbling, and sobering at the same time. It brings tears to my eyes to see them endure such injuries and lifelong hardships on themselves and their families, all while they demonstrate such remarkable honor and an absolute devotion to an idea bigger than any one person. Ken believed in that idea, and has paid a terrible price to keep it alive for ourselves and several million complete strangers in a far away land. His passion is contagious, his energy impossible to match, and his honor second to none. He doesn’t want awards or medals, and doesn’t fish for thanks or compliments. He seems to do it simply to do what he thinks is right. Right by America and right by humanity. And he assures me with absolute conviction that most of our men and women on the ground share the same enthusiasm for duty, honor and country that he does, including their support for this war.
The honor soldiers like Ken demonstrate make them among our finest citizens, with an enviable selflessness that I wish I could match. Whether or not one believes in THIS war or ANY war, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen like him (and there are a lot of them in the US Armed Forces) have not a concern in the world for their own well-being, and have done–and given–so much for everyone else, with so little in return.
As you spend this weekend with your families and bring National Veteran’s Week to a close, please take a few moments to think about our soldiers and sailors who are in harms way, and those whom have served in uniform in the past. Say a prayer for them, or have a few moments of silence. But perhaps above all else, if you have am opportunity to do so, just pass them a genuine thanks; that alone would mean more to someone like Ken than all the medals and honors in the world–even if he does deserve every one of them.