“A veteran is someone who wrote a blank check made payable to The United States of America for an amount up to and including their life.”
That’s an unattributed quote that gets thrown around a lot this time of year. It’s a thought that’s never quite squared with me though. I’m a veteran. When I signed up, I didn’t write any blank checks. I signed up for a job. I did it because it was a good and honorable profession. And it paid for my college. When that obligation was met I kept doing it because it paid me well and took care of my family. Then one day when I couldn’t do it any more, I tried to stop. But I couldn’t. Because I didn’t know how.
When I started, I never really thought that my life was at risk any more than anyone else that drove on a freeway to work, or flew a plane for a living or worked on a high-rise construction site. I’d like to think that I chose the path that I did out of patriotism. That I raised my hand because I loved my country and that I wanted to defend our way of life. It’s not that I don’t. Or that I wouldn’t. It’s just been a long time since anyone of us had to actually defend an American’s ability to live the American way in America. Really long. Centuries. So when that particular reverence is paid to us, I struggle with it. Because when we’re really honest, most vets would tell you what I just did.
There’s something comforting to the notion that those that made the ultimate sacrifice had an expectation that their service may be their end. Somehow, it makes us feel better about it, maybe a little less guilty. They all knew what they were getting into…something like that. The truth is, none of us did. We signed up for our own reasons and hoped for experiences that would help shape us. We wanted camaraderie and war stories. We wanted the glory of serving during battle and the recognition that came with it. None of us wanted to die. Almost none of us expected we would. But sometimes it happened. It’s a heavy price to pay, one that’s been paid too often.
Every now and then, I take a run to the Cabrillo Monument, out at the end of Point Loma where I live in San Diego. It’s a beautiful run that takes you past a panoramic view of the harbor and the San Diego skyline. It also takes you through Fort Rosecrans cemetery, where thousands of veterans are buried in a long rolling plot of land that’s straddled by the bustling of San Diego harbor on one side and the quiet enormity of the Pacific on the other.
There’s one particular marker that sticks out, near the ocean side entrance. SGT Alejandro Dominguez was killed June 25th 2008, ten weeks short of his 25th birthday. I didn’t know SGT Dominguez. We didn’t serve together. His gravestone, his obituary and an official press release with a two-line blurb about his death are all I needed to know.
He woke up on his 18th birthday, September 11, 2001, to see the attack on the World Trade Center. The day he was old enough to go to war for his country, his country went to war. Shortly after, he enlisted and made multiple deployments to Iraq. On his last, his vehicle hit a roadside bomb, killing him, SPC Joel Taylor and PFC James Yohn, two soldiers junior to him whose lives he no doubt felt accountable for.
There’s a narrative about SGT Dominguez that you could build that sounds like this. He was born on 9/11. In an act of patriotism, he rushed out to defend his country and willingly sacrificed himself to defend our way of life. In the end, he paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. May he rest in peace.
Knowing what I know about the young men and women I served with, there’s probably truth to that. But I also know something else. It’s incomplete.
SGT Dominguez did his part. He raised his hand. And served his time. But he went back for more. Because like so many, he did write that blank check. Not to America. Not to all who live in a free and open society. He wrote that check to the life of a soldier at war.
In 2004, about the time that SGT Dominguez was heading out for his first deployment, I was coming home. I’d just completed back to back tours in Operation Enduring Freedom. I was done. I resigned my commission and transitioned out a few weeks after I returned to be with my wife and start a family. About six months later, Operation Red Wings went down. It was the mission that would eventually be made into the movie Lone Survivor. 19 Special Operations personnel were lost. Men I knew.
The day that it happened, the wife of a friend of mine called me. Her husband was deployed. It was their first go at it as a married couple. She had watched the news and was worried. She asked me if I had any information about the operation or who had been involved and if her husband was ok. I couldn’t tell her anything. I didn’t know anything. I was out of the loop, away from the life, getting my information from the news just like her. I hung up the phone and got sick. I may have been done with the life, but it wasn’t done with me. The guilt was overpowering. The urge to fight back was all consuming, but impossible all the same. I was lost.
About a year later, I was recalled back to active duty. I was happy to be back where I belonged, with my brothers and sisters in arms, fighting again.
I hadn’t realized that I too had written that blank check, or who I had written it to, until I was standing on the tarmac at the on ramp of a C17 heading back to Iraq, leading a troop one last time. I felt whole again. More whole than I ever felt as a husband. More whole then I ever felt as a father. Perhaps it was the same thing SGT Dominguez felt, watching over his two junior soldiers heading out the door one last time, leaving a wife and two young children behind, never to see them again.
The life is hard to stop living. And the fallen of my generation, more times than not, fell before they had a chance to try. And too many more of them fell after they left, failing to find the purpose or the drive they once felt at war.
The fallen are heroes of a different type. Maybe more than we realize. All of those men and women laying beneath those humble stones had plans for the days after they died. They all had hopes to get out alive, even if they didn’t know how. To start or finish a family. Write a book. Start a blog. But none of them did. They gave their life to a task that only they could do. Or a teammate only they could save. For many of them, the life of a warrior was all they knew any more. All they would do. All they could do.
This war has shaped my generation the way that only a war that travels with fighting men and women for 15 years can. And for those of you whose check was cashed, we remember you this weekend. Not because of the hundreds of millions of Americans sleeping soundly in their beds at night. Chances are, they’d still be sleeping soundly if you were still alive, perhaps even if you never went. We remember you for the brothers and sisters who fought this war with you. And the bond we have. And the debt you paid that we didn’t. You never got the chance to try to stop living the life. And for that, we will be forever in your debt.