Make Room! Make Room!
One of the reasons why I struggle with deep participation in various veterans groups is that the previous generation typically wants to talk at the current generation about their experiences.
I honor and respect previous generations, do not get me wrong. It’s merely the penchant of veterans to talk about what they have done. It’s the Vietnam veteran that can only talk about Vietnam, even though with short dwell times, soldiers that have served at any point across the last 20 years probably ate more shit for far more time than anyone in Vietnam. It’s not a contest, but the focus on services for generations now in retrograde among the population, we have to prioritize what may well be the largest and most underserved group of veterans since World War I.
That’s not the end of it for me. With a career that has spanned the last 30 years, it’s easy for me to say, “been there, done that.” But what’s the point? The only value I bring to my Guard unit is transmitting that hard-earned knowledge to the soldiers who will carry the torch forward.
Consider what we typically say about incoming generations of soldiers. When I enlisted, in 1993, and shipped to what is now Fort Moore in 1994, we were the Atari/Nintendo generation, and we were constantly reminded of this. This may have been the era in which the “stress card” rumors began, although I suspect that’s been around for longer. In spite of making this beautiful commitment of young people the focus, we spend considerable amounts of time reminding them of how far they have to go. It is one thing, that to my great frustration, has not changed at all since 1993.
I do not like this, and I really began not liking this in the mid-1990s, when after an injury, I landed in a brigade S3 shop. I many ways, I acknowledge I brought considerably more value as a private first class in staff than I did as an RTO in LRSD or a line soldier in the Rakkasans. None of the old heads could type a memorandum, do a spreadsheet, or create slides for the overhead projector. I learned so much so early about the “big picture” because I got to work with all of the components of the S3, be it schools, air planning, fires planning, etc. etc. But all of the old-heads lamented the distance between me, a young PFC, and time “in a line company.”
It was self-correcting when I received orders to Alaska. I picked up my place back in an airborne rifle company, occasionally helping the training room with their work, but still having the time of my life as a steely-eyed trigger-puller. I felt like I was a better soldier for that early experience in staff.
Kids today see the triple-stack of scary badges on my uniform and ask a lot of apprehensive questions. I earned the last one before most of them were born, and I tell them so. These are artifacts of where I have been, and perhaps some knowledge I can share. They are not, “I am cooler than you will ever be.” I find myself reluctant to share stories at this point. I want to hear theirs.
When I meet an 18-year-old soldier fresh out of their occupational training, I’d want hear about their motivations to join. I want to know what in their life prompted them to enlist or commission. What are their goals? Where do they want to be, both in the military and in their civilian life?
How then can I help them get there? Don’t focus on the badges above US Army on my uniform. I want them to think about what they’re going to put on the blank space on theirs!
I deeply dread being the guy deep in the sauce at the VFW, talking about his own glory days. We honor our own service by making space for the service of the next generation. You can talk about yourself, or you can still contribute by listening to and enabling the folks that are picking up where we left off.
These beautiful young people deserve to be the center of our attention.