October 28, 2009 – I got an email yesterday from a nephew who is in the Air National Guard. He was, he said, sitting in a terminal and in two hours he would be leaving for an airbase in Iraq.
His Facebook page still says “Delaware ’10” and lists his interests as “…guitar, da beach, eating, sleeping, talking, piano, drums, skydiving, doing backflips, wallflips, frontflips, and any other type of flips.” (Note: Google “wallflips” and be amazed…) Favorite music includes, to name just a few, “Making April, Amber Pacific, Something Corporate, Starting Line.” Under “Political Views” he says “Obama is my boss.” Boss, as in Commander in Chief.
This is his second deployment to the Middle East, his first to Iraq. He loads and unloads airplanes that transport troops and heavy military cargo and equipment. On his last deployment he worked as many as 14 hours a day in heat that often reached 115 degrees or higher. As part of US Air Forces Central Command his unit helped break records for moving troops and cargo during the Surge.
Now, Iraq. Now moving troops out. Now more heat and more sandstorms and more danger. As I write this I am listening to news on the radio about Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s not good.
Five years ago, not long after he decided to enlist, I wrote him a letter. Here it is, with just a little edited out:
August 25, 2004
Last week Cory, your sister Maggie and I were walking on the boardwalk at Ocean City, Maryland. The temperature was in the high 80s and the sun was shining brightly. A teenage boy walked by us wearing a Darth Vader style ground length black coat. I asked Cory and Maggie what message they thought this guy was trying to send to the world and expressed my opinion that everything we choose to wear is intended as a message to others. At this point, Cory looked at me and asked, “What message are you sending, Daddy?” And I said, with no hesitation whatsoever, “I was in the Air Force once.”
The words came out of my mouth so quickly that I was startled. I am in my sixties. I went in the Air Force when I was 18. I wondered if it is possible that something that happened so long ago could have become such a dominant part of my self-identity, so much so that it influences how I wear my hat, what I wear, how I stand and walk, who I think I am, and how I think.
Here are my considered views on all this. Military service, in war or peace, changes your core. Permanently.
It starts when you raise your right hand to be sworn in, promising to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to obey the orders of the President of the United States and those who are appointed over you. Taking this oath, if you do so seriously, puts you far ahead of the responsibilities shouldered by the average 18 year old civilian. You will always have a sense of pride in having taken this oath. You will always have a sense of pride in knowing that you are permanently part of the long historical procession of those who have served in this country’s armed forces.
But it is an oath with such potentially serious consequences that it would be just plain foolish and naive to enlist just for the educational or other benefits. There has to be a sincere sense of duty to your country or it makes no sense at all. You are agreeing, for the period of your enlistment, to be placed in harm’s way if your country needs you. You are saying that, if in harm’s way, you will not surrender as long as you have the means to continue the fight. You are saying that you will give up your right to do whatever you please and will obey all lawful orders in order to serve your country. Danny, some people go their whole lives without developing the maturity and discipline to handle the “have-tos” which enter into every life. You will learn the needed maturity and discipline at a very early age in the service.
In basic training you are pushed to new levels of physical achievement that you could hardly have imagined possible. You learn to keep going in the face of calculated harassment that aims to find out if you’re made of the right stuff.
After basic training you will go on to training for your specialty. When you finish this training it is very likely that you will be given job responsibilities and experiences that are far greater than those held by people your age in the civilian world. You will not get the higher civilian pay, but you will get up every day and know that what you are doing really matters to your country, especially now. You will be guided by a sense of duty, even if you can’t wait to get out. It’s possible you will see the friends you left back home as immature and self-indulgent, but you will envy their less regimented lifestyles. When you do get out, your service to your country behind you, you will find that you are a member of the largest informal fellowship in the world – that of men and women who have served their country in the military.
There will be occasions in your life, probably on a Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day, when you will be at church or in a restaurant or at a sports stadium and someone with a microphone will ask all who have served in our armed forces to stand to be recognized. You will be glad that you are among those standing.
For the rest of your life, you will look at things from the perspective of a young serviceman, because you will always be able to put yourself in their place. You will say to yourself, “I was one of them,” and your opinions will be influenced accordingly.
Danny, someday when I die, I will be put in a veterans cemetery where I will be with others who served in war and in peace. My stone or plaque will be the standard, showing my rank when I was a young enlisted man in the service, as though I never accomplished more in life. In my mind, thinking specifically of my own experience, I never did accomplish more or for a greater purpose.
God bless you and protect you. We are all proud of you.
Senior Airman Daniel Kotler, to you and all of the young men and women who serve in this nation’s armed forces – come home to us safely.
What not to miss: Here is a link to a 9 minute and 45 second long YouTube video I shot of a planeload of our armed forces personnel returning to the USA through BWI Airport outside Baltimore, Maryland on June 6, 2008. Senior Airman Daniel Kotler is tagged and appears for nine seconds.