The Purpose of Strength

A lifetime ago I was stationed in a dusty outpost in a backwater province in one of the dozens of countries American men and women have served in dusty outposts in backwater provinces over the last twenty years. One afternoon, one of the local officials we were working with brought a woman to the burnt out old government building that served as our office. She was distraught. Her nine-year old son had gone missing two days before. And she came to us for help to find him.

She’d gotten a few voicemails from the people who had taken him. She played one of them for us. My chief and I listened. I ignored my interpreter as he translated what he heard. I didn’t need to know what was said. I could hear fear in the voice of a young boy. And then the threatening tone of a man. And then silence.

We asked her what she thought we could do to help. And she said that she hoped we could find him. My chief told our interpreter that we’d see what we could do and he relayed the message to her as he walked her out the door. That work wasn’t why we were there. But my chief and I rounded up a few of the team and did a little work anyway. And we made a little progress and came to the conclusion that if we had a few resources, we could probably go get that kid.

Later that night, at our evening meeting with the commanders we reported to, we gave them the situation and asked for the resources. And we were turned down. None were available. And trying to give it a go without them was a non-starter. I walked out of the meeting room with my stomach in a knot. I thought of what it was going to feel like when that woman came back the next day. When I had to tell her we couldn’t help. When there was no way she would understand that I just didn’t have the resources. And that ultimately it wasn’t up to me. All she would hear was that we couldn’t help her find her son.

My chief and I shuffled silently down the hall and out the door. When I turned towards the mess hall, my chief turned the opposite direction, back to our building. I asked where he was going. And he looked back over his shoulder without breaking his stride and said, “I’m gonna go get that kid.” He was surprised I asked. He took a few more steps and stopped and turned back to me.

“You don’t have to come.”

Then he turned and left. I stood there for a few seconds in moral limbo. And then I pulled the tin of Copenhagen from my cargo pocket, packed it, threw in a dip and followed after him. I could have ordered him to stop. But I knew he wouldn’t.

A few days later the boy was returned to his mother. How we found him without using the resources or without blatantly disobeying orders isn’t important. But we did. I called my wife that night and told her simply that we had done something good that day.

My bosses weren’t wrong. They made the proper and prudent decision. We weren’t there to do that job. And they really didn’t have the resources I asked for. And the risk to go it alone the way we would have without them was far too high. And if I were them, ten times out of ten, I would have made the same call they did. Because from where they were sitting, it was the right call. Because from where they were sitting, they couldn’t hear the fear in that boy’s voice. Or see the pain in that woman’s eyes when she heard it. And none of them were going to have to live with it for fifty years after that boy’s body got fished out of the river with no head and hands the way the last two boys that went missing did whose parents never came to us for help.

But what my chief understood immediately, and showed me the way so I could follow, was that sometimes, when the strong are far away from the pain and the suffering of it all, burdened by the grave responsibility to get it so right for so many, they forget some things. They forget that woman and her son were the unprotected innocent. And we were the strong. And sometimes, when we turn our eyes away from them for too long, we forget that those who need us most, are the purpose of our strength.

The strong are not strong because we can protect ourselves. You can do that by running and hiding. By never taking bold risks. By locking out the others. The purpose of strength is to be strong for others. Not for ourselves.

There is risk and consequence in action. You may lose all you have and all you’re ever going to have. But there’s consequence to inaction too. Some things once seen must be met with action. Like the voice of a kidnapped child. Or the picture of a father with nerve gassed children. The erosion in the human belief that the human purpose on this planet is for others, and that the very cause of strength is for the weak, is far more destructive than any material risk we’ll ever face when we choose to act.

They are the purpose of our strength. But sometimes, it’s easy to forget why we’re strong.


War is a Choice

War is a lot of things. It’s brotherhood and sacrifice and heroism. It’s one man giving his life to save others. It’s an entire society mobilizing towards a common and just end. It’s the free people of the world drawing a line in the sand against the encroachment of tyranny and casting it into the dustbin of history. It’s a struggle, to the death, in the name of good and freedom and liberty.

These are the things we need to believe about war in order to fight it. And service towards those ends is what we need to believe in order to honor those we ask to fight it for us. Because if you can’t then you run the risk of being reminded of exactly what war is.

Beyond the abstract visions that we sell ourselves to do it, war is a very real and terrible thing. War is the taxi driver in East Timor taking me 20 minutes out of our way to show me the sea wall on which his parents were lined up and shot. It’s the cooler sitting next to my desk full of the body parts of a teenager who blew himself up. It’s me looking at it uneasily, waiting for the technicians to come and take it away to try to identify him. War is the dozen women and children he killed the day before at a funeral. That’s what war was for me. I got off easy.

Because war is much worse.

It’s the 40 thousand civilians—men, women and children- killed by Nazi bombs from the sky in England during the blitz. War is the 300,000 Chinese killed in the Rape of Nanking. War is the 120,000 civilians killed during post invasion Iraq. And now war is the death squads going house to house in Aleppo killing women and children by the dozens. War is all of those things. Whether we sell those parts, or not.

War is one other thing. It’s a choice.

No matter how much we spin it. No matter how much we believe that our safety and the future of our society is at stake, war is always a choice. If the forces of evil are at our doorstep, inside our borders, marching on the capital itself, the movement to fight is a choice. Sometimes it’s the best choice. Sometimes it isn’t. But the iron die is never actually cast, no matter how much we need to believe it was. And the progression towards arms is never inevitable.

War is always a choice.

We point to the isolated atrocities of war as outliers. We think of them as extreme and rare cases to plug into our overall calculus of choice. They give us comfort, knowing there will never be another like it. There was only one My Lai massacre. There was one Abu Ghraib. There was only one Batan Death March. There was only one Andersonville. Those singular events are isolated. And they will never happen again. But the consistency of those sort of events are as much a part of modern war as artillery or tanks or ships. Rest assured, when we mobilize and march to war, someone somewhere will be sitting in their house in fear, having never lifted a finger to harm anyone, and they will be killed. It might be a stray bomb. It might be an accidental target. It might be a death squad or a chemical attack.

Sometimes it’s our fault. Sometimes it isn’t. But it’s going to happen. And it happened because somewhere someone chose it to in the name of something reasonably sellable-security, democracy, capitalism. Though the specifics of the horror are impossible to predict, the certainty of horror is not.

Aleppo has fallen. And the aftermath, death destruction and human tragedy in the streets, is the ultimate end to how modern cities fall in war. It was no different in Berlin. It was no different in Fallujah. And it wouldn’t have been any different in Tokyo, had we not avoided it by annihilating others from above with nuclear destruction. There will be blame to go around. There will be calls for war crime inquiries. And there will be calls for us to act.

To volunteer once again.

Man is a sentient, warring animal. We are capable of committing horrible transgressions in the name of our interests. And we are capable of feeling every ounce of pain it gives us. And now, as the grim events in Syria play out on our televisions and our social media feeds, we need to feel it. All of it. Because we should never miss the opportunity to account for the true costs of war. All of its death and suffering and cruel unfairness. And balance that against the true weight of our gains. And reflect honestly about what side of the ledger holds the most value.

So don’t turn away too quickly. And don’t point to other peoples as unique in their destruction. This is a habit of man. But it’s also a choice. And in these times of fresh tragedy, it’s important to remember that when we decide what to do next.

The Day We Shrunk the World

There’s a common narrative about the meaning of what happened in Hawaii 75 years ago this past week. It sounds something like this. The forces of evil, previously growing unchecked in their pursuit to conquer the world, had finally awoken a sleeping giant. And though they dealt her a vicious blow, they sealed their doomed fates that morning. The forces of the free people of the world answered back and with a clear and decisive victory for good in an inarguable statement of the strength of moral and just authority.

It’s not a bad narrative. And it’s not entirely untrue. There has been no more clear example of the greatness of the American expression of liberty, democracy and capitalism than the conduct of our people, our industry and our government during World War II. And for a little while, those that perpetrated the injustice of pitching the globe into a war that would kill 60 million men and women did suffer harsh and near final consequence. But both our greatness and their destruction were perhaps less permanent than any of us like to admit. Germany and Japan, a within the span of two generations are now the third and fourth largest economies in the world. Their people enjoy a stability and quality of life reserved for a handful of societies in human history. And we Americans, the victors, have found ourselves tangled in near constant war and have enjoyed the spoils of victory much differently than perhaps we would have thought.

A few centuries ago, before he became a musical and then a political debate, Alexander Hamilton pointed to the true consequence of Pearl Harbor, a century and a half before it happened. As he urged the American people towards union and the acceptance of the newly created Constitution, Hamilton pointed to the poor state of Europe after centuries of war and division.

“The history of war, in that quarter of the globe, is no longer a history of nations subdued and empires overturned, but of towns taken and retaken; of battles that decide nothing; of retreats more beneficial than victories; of much effort and little acquisition.”

Hamilton dreamed of a union unlike Europe, so vast and sturdy that we would be free from threat of external incursions. And he was right. For 150 years, the only material damage ever dealt to us was by our own hand in the bloody war against ourselves to end slavery. But Hamilton could never have dreamed of a world where huge ships could travel the Pacific in a week’s time and launch things called airplanes to destroy an entire fleet of ships in an hour. And he could never in his wildest dreams imagined atomic energy and the horrors of nuclear warfare that ultimately answered them. Pearl Harbor was the moment in time when the world shrunk. And thereafter, no one was ever too big or too united to be free from threat. Pearl Harbor was the stark realization that forever more, anything worth owning was to be owned by someone with the means to defend it.

The lesson of the last 75 years, if we take the time to complete the narrative of what Pearl Harbor means, is one where we’ve realized Hamilton’s vision in painful ways. Where America has fought battles that decide nothing. Where our retreats have been more beneficial than our victories. Where we have exerted much effort with little acquisition.

The world has changed. And the threats have changed with it. Small groups of men with conviction can inflict great injury on world powers. Foreign entities can encroach through cyberspace to impact sacred instruments of democracy. These threats are real and dangerous. But they are very different. And we appear to be content to respond to them with the weapons of centuries past-generals.

Be careful when you respond to different problems with the same answer. National security in 2016 is perhaps not as dependent on military strength as it once was. I say this as someone who spent most of his adult life in the service of arms. I appreciate the notion of service and the benefits of military strength. But we should have learned over the last 75 years that fighting ideas or economic systems with armies, generally just kills our young men and women and not the ideas. And if you staff the team responsible for the security of our people in 2017 and beyond, with generals who fight kinetic wars, as the incoming administration has, then it begs the question, what, if anything have we learned?

Fighting the last war is always how the next war starts. But winning it tends to come with the realization that you’re doing it again.

Well, we’re doing it again.

The Blank Check

 “A veteran is someone who, at one point in their life 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. It’s a thought that’s never quite squared with me though. I’m a veteran. And when I signed up, I didn’t write any blank checks. I signed up to do a job for a reason. I did it because it was a good and honorable profession. It paid for my college. And when that obligation was met I kept doing it because it paid me well and took care of my family. And then one day when I couldn’t do it any more, I stopped. Or at least I tried. 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 vets, 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. They all knew what they were getting into. Or so goes the story. The truth is, that’s not how it works. 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. And one that’s been paid by too many of our nation’s young.

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 is 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 hisTombstone 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, while serving in Al Anbar, his vehicle hit a roadside bomb, killing him and 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 payed 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. But 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 heir 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 were ok. I couldn’t tell her anything. I didn’t know anything. I was out of the loop. I was 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 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 like SGT Dominguez, 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. 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. Remember you for the brothers and sisters who fought this war with you. And the bond we have. And the debt you paid for us. You never got the chance to try to stop living the life. And for that, we will be forever in your debt.

The Prospect of Service

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Of the 20 Americans that have officially announced their candidacy for President of the United States for the 2016 election, three have served on active duty in the United States armed forces. One, Lindsey Graham (R) was a JAG (military for lawyer) in the Air Force. One, Rick Perry (R), was a cargo pilot in the post Vietnam era Air Force. One, Jim Webb (D), is a real life honest to goodness bona fide war hero, having been awarded the Navy Cross (one step down from the Medal of Honor) Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam. Which means that of those who have raised their hand to participate in the pursuit of our country’s highest office of public service, 15% of them have served in our armed forces; 5% in war.   Though that may seem low, and it certainly is relative to previous presidential races, it’s actually more than representative of our overall population base with respect to military service.   According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, presently, about 7% of Americans have ever served on active duty in the military. And so we should be somewhat satisfied by our turnout of candidates. Somehow it doesn’t feel that way though. Perhaps because we hold the office to a higher standard. Perhaps because we value military service differently than other vocations when it comes to presidentiality.   As usual though, if we take a look at the history behind it, we can gain some perspective on how much this really matters.

Does military service matter?  At the highest level, there’s an interesting pattern that makes logical sense when you take some time to think about it.   We’ve had three presidents who have served in the highest ranks during a time of war and have therefore met what we would consider to be the most relevant prior experience to being commander in chief. Washington, Grant and Eisenhower all were, in whatever historically appropriate capacity possible, the highest ranking officer engaged in the highest level of combat during our three most consequential armed conflicts. Of the 24 years those three men served as president, a total of 6 months was spent at war, the sole contribution to our war history being the 186 days it took for Ike to pull the plug on Korea. Now, there’s a case to be made that those men had seen war and therefore had no stomach for more of it. Which we know from their memoir’s is at least a little true. What probably played more of a factor was simple chronology though. Being “General of the Army” is not a young man’s game. So if you were doing it at the time of war, and you went on to become president, you did so in a very short period of time, within the scope of a decade in each case. We tend to steer clear of large scale war within the scope of the same generation if we can help it. And so the requirement for lofty military command to qualify a presidential candidate for the job is not one that history supports.

If we flip the question around and ask what was the prior military experience of our most effective commanders in chief, we get a somewhat surprising answer. For one, we actually didn’t have a president during our first important war, the American Revolution. So when we look at those who played critically tactical roles as President, the list is quite short. It includes two men with exactly zero days of active duty service in the military. Lincoln and FDR were, head and shoulders above the rest, the most important and successful commanders in chief to ever hold the office of President. When you think about the scope and scale of their burden, it’s remarkable all that they were able to accomplish. Lincoln waged war a stone’s throw from the White House personally transmitting orders to generals in the field from the War Department Telegraph room.   FDR engaged daily with a joint allied staff on strategy in Europe and the Pacific until the day he died. The decisions these men both made, regularly, are unequaled in their complexity and their impact on the nation and the world. Neither ever wore a uniform.

History makes a pretty strong case. Military service is a poor predictor of performance as commander in chief.  So does it matter at all? If not as a qualification to lead the military, then what does it tell us? Does it tell us a candidate is dedicated to a life of service? Perhaps, but to be honest, agree with their politics or not, the list of 20 or so names on this candidate list includes hundreds of years of public service not specific to the military. So, it’s not really about service either. But it is about something. To be clear its actually about two things.

First, it’s a validation that at some point in their life, a candidate has done something that took some grit. Of the three war-time deployments that I had, two were with what we’ll call elite units. The third, the one that I’m least likely to tell war stories about at parties, was with what we would call a “conventional” unit.   That deployment, by a country mile, was the one that absolutely beat me down the most. It was brutal relentless and absolutely representative of what most of our men and women in uniform experience when they deploy. So when we see someone who has served, we can say with confidence, that at some point in their lives, they lived through a truly trying experience. Which is something to benchmark them with when so much of everything else that we see out of them feels less genuine and more contrived. Military service is real. And there’s no way to hide from the “suck”. When you look at this field of 20, it definitely feels light on grit.  But maybe that’s just from where I’m sitting.

The other thing that prior military service does, and this is more relevant for war time service, is that it validates resiliency. Which is actually entirely different than being a hero. There’s something to the notion that heroism is less important than recovery. My experience during the 14 years of war that we’ve been engaged in is a fairly common one for those that served. I saw less “action” than those who served in the worst of it, yet more than those that managed to serve in more peripheral roles. Of the 20 or so months I spent in active war zones, I can clearly count two instances where I legitimately thought that I was going to die. Some level of danger and vigilance were constants but those moments where I actually thought that I wasn’t getting out of it were rare. And frankly, the reason I did was because of luck and other people, not heroism or skill. The fall out of those events was not necessarily contributory to a life well lived either. That which does not kill us…sometimes leaves us with nightmares, anxiety and a propensity to self medicate. There’s something important that follows though. We’re beginning to talk about this more these days but we used to ignore it entirely. It’s the recovery that matters.  The richest part of the human experience is the walk back to the path our life was on when something knocks us off of it. And so for men like James Webb, it’s less about the citation from his Navy Cross, which I encourage you to read, and more about what he no doubt went through in the years after he returned from war to live the worthy and full life that he has. It’s not that you can’t get those experiences without serving. War simply tends to provide those that experience it with more acute opportunities to survive.

With all this in mind, what should we be considering when it comes to military service and our presidential candidates? I think it’s the following question. What did a candidate do with the prospect of military service? For some, because of the time in which they lived and the paths that their lives have taken, the opportunity to serve simply never materialized as a serious consideration. And that’s ok. Lincoln and FDR show that. But for others, the prospect of service was a question that couldn’t be avoided, like those of the “Greatest Generation”. Of the eight presidents that held office after WWII, all of them actively served in some capacity in the military during the war. A little closer to home for this election, there’s the question of Vietnam service.  What did a candidate do with prospect of serving in Vietnam? Did they pursue it? Did they leave it to fate? Or did they run from it? I think it’s fair to put the last of those three choices into the “not suitable” bucket. But that’s just my opinion. And it’s an opinion informed by asking that one critical question of what a candidate did with the prospect of service. The snapshot in time that will be the 2016 election is as such that we ought to be slightly fine with the lean yield of the answer to that question. But the future will likely hold a very different outcome. Here’s why.

My generation of service member has been at war a long time. For many of us, we spent our whole professional careers at war. I was deployed when the war started and finished my active duty career months before the end of combat operations in Iraq.   Our chance to participate in a new life of service is coming. And when it does, the question of the prospect of service will become much more important. My generation has been knocked far off of life’s path and for those of us fortunate to make the long journey back to it, there will be a calling to serve again. We’ve seen much, sacrificed more and fear little. And our time is coming. So when 2024 rolls around or maybe even 2020, ask yourself that question with regard to your candidate of choice.  What did they do with the prospect of service?   Because what it tells of my generation is important.  And we’re getting closer to the door every day.

In Memory of My Friends

Freedom isn’t free. That’s the message playing out on my social media stream with heartfelt devotion this Memorial Day weekend in pictures of Arlington National Cemetery or flag draped coffins, reminding us, maybe for just a few days, that some have made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom. And as a Veteran, I am deeply appreciative of the honor that my friends and family show my fallen comrades. They’re right. Freedom isn’t free. We pay for our freedom. We pay for it with our industry and our innovation. We pay for it with our compassion and our willingness to compromise in the name of the greater good. We pay for it with our commitment to pay attention to things that matter in service to exercising our democratic duties as Americans. Sometimes, when we must, we pay for it with the lives of our young men and women.   And so this weekend we honor them.

I would like to take our collective conscience a little further though, past honor and respect. Past gratitude, past reverence. This weekend I would like ask people to move past all of it and spend some time in conscious thought about what the cost of war is; the honest cost of war.  In our history, we have lost 1.2 million men and women to combat deaths. Of these dead, the logical majority were young people at the dawn of their membership in the brotherhood of mankind. The average age of the 58,220 Americans killed in Vietnam was 23.

What masterpieces of art, what forces of industry, what transcendent leaders and humanitarians were snuffed out well before their prime? What husbands and fathers, mothers and sons paid the ultimate bill for goods they never received? As has been the case through the ages, the youth pay dearly for the misgivings of our elders and their inability to find solutions without violent ends. In With the Old Breed, the most honest war book I’ve ever read, written by a true American hero who served in the hell of Okinawa and Peleliu, Eugene B. Sledge gave voice to our dead.

“I am the harvest of man’s stupidity. I am the fruit of the holocaust. I prayed like you to survive, but look at me now. It is over for us who are dead, but you must struggle, and will carry the memories all your life. People back home will wonder why you can’t forget.”

Freedom isn’t free. And so neither is war. Though we stand ready to fight to defend our freedom and our way of life, it’s not the only thing we fight for. We’ve fought for our security. We’ve fought for politics. We’ve fought for our economy. We’ve fought and sacrificed our countrymen for many things, not just freedom. In one of his earliest speeches of record, a 28-year old Abraham Lincoln captured a truth that 177 years later, when we’re honest with ourselves, we know to be true today.

At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?– Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

There’s still the same amount of ocean between us and anyone as when young Abe made his point. It has been a long time since American men and women have died to protect our freedom alone.

As for my generation of fighting men and women, we have a similar, yet different price to pay.  As it was for many of my graduating class from Annapolis, I was on my first deployment when this war started 14 years ago. Since then, over 8,000 men and women have lost their lives. And as callous as it sounds, that’s not a lot of death for 14 years of war. The American warrior is hard to kill these days. There’s another cost that we continue to pay out in much more subtle figures though.

After multiple deployments in the longest war in the history of our country, many continue to suffer the effects of long-term exposure to stress and trauma. Like a car stuck in drive, often the only peace for them comes when the tank is empty or they crash like my classmate Ben. Ben was a Marine Corps officer who served multiple deployments in Iraq. He took his own life this last March after suffering for over a decade with PTSD and depression. I didn’t know Ben well. I didn’t have to in order to know that he was the energy and light in every room he was in. Now that light is gone forever and the world is worse off for it.

For many of us, the environment we lived in put us in a state where we couldn’t stop chasing it. Every year at this time I am reminded of my friend and classmate Jeremy. Jeremy was a Force Recon Marine Corp Major with multiple hard deployments under his belt during the worst of the fighting Iraq and Afghanistan. Jeremy was a hell of a man. He was better than everyone at everything he ever did. If you knew him, you know what I mean. He died in a BASE jumping accident while on leave from the war. Jeremy was my friend and I miss him. He would have made a strong husband to a good woman or a mentoring father to a son or daughter. He’s gone now.  These are the more subtle costs of our modern war.  Less acute but somehow, more painful and cruel.

I am not a pacifist. I don’t believe that, as a nation, the activities of our military in the near past have been entirely in vain. I was a voluntary part of much of it. There are pictures of my teammates and medals on the wall of my den in the open for my kids to see and be proud of. I don’t wish that my country would lay down her arms and surrender the will to wage war in the name of our freedom, our interests or even our principles. I’m asking for something else. What I ask of my American brothers and sisters is that you take the time this weekend to consider something very important.

Ask yourself, when you formed your opinion about when and how our country should engage in armed conflict with foreign countries, did you put enough thought into it to bet someone else’s life on it? Have you truly taken the time to consider the honest cost of war? If you haven’t, try to spend a little time over the next few days to think about it. There are a few people I won’t be able to stop thinking about this weekend that you owe it to.