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What makes a young man or woman today want to serve in the military? That question has probably been asked in every generation since the founding of the city-state, if not earlier. There are always the high ideals, the defense of the state, the winning of honor on the field of battle, and duty to God, country and family. But these are, in the end, metaphors – poetic, high-minded goals that sound good when spoken by grave-sounding, gray-haired men in the great council chambers of government.
In reality the reasons are often much more mundane, closer to the concerns of our everyday lives. Sometimes the reasons for entering the military are related to the romantic aspirations of the young: wearing the uniform, doing things that you could never do on the block, or in your small hometown. Sometimes it's just the gypsy desire to get out of your hometown, to see a wider world and travel to places you could only dream of at home.
Then again, there are also very practical reasons for entering the military; for example, desire for the economic security of a steady paycheck and health benefits. There is the very valuable benefit of ROTC, of getting a college degree paid for by the government. Yes, there is always the possibility, especially during times of war, that you might have to do what the military is designed to do: to fight and possibly die for a cause larger than yourself. Of course, there are many, who, when the nation is threatened, do go into the military specifically to defend the nation, or to in some way extract some justice against the aggressor in return.
The reasons can be as varied as the people who to decide to enter the military. Some may appear more noble than others, but in truth, they are all as good as any other. It's what happens after the decision to enter that makes all the difference.
For those who enter in times of peace, the economic and educational benefits are always valuable. What one can learn in the military, how one comports oneself in the daily duties of the various jobs one is assigned to do, serves others in less tangible ways as well. For many who enter, the experience is one that matures them into the responsibilities of adult life, often doing so very quickly. One learns how to work with others, and learns the virtues of obedience, patient endurance, and commitment to the little things as well as the large. One learns that the great things that are done depend entirely on the quality of attention that has been given to the small things, that the small things really do have a reason, purpose, and value that often are not seen.
In times of war, those who serve find within themselves reserves of courage, of self-sacrifice, and of commitment to others and to realities and ideals far beyond the narrow confines of the ego. They find also that terrible things can happen to good people. They must confront their own weaknesses, and develop their natural strengths, in the immediate and crushingly challenging environment of bullets and bombs.
It is amazing that we have been doing this since the beginning of history, and that we have not found a way out of it as yet. But reality, all too often, trumps our dreams of peace. Our civilization, indeed, that of the entire world, needs yet to mature to the level we all hope and dream to arrive at one day. So we still need to rely on those who, for whatever reason, decide to enter into military service. It is a sad truth that today we must still say to those who serve, that theirs is still not to reason why, theirs is still to do and, possibly, to die, to defend the freedoms we all enjoy. In history up to the present it has always been so.
So we can do nothing less than thank those who have so chosen to serve, for whatever reason. We honor you and commit ourselves to serve you when you return, to help you recover from your injuries and find employment, respect, and acceptance.
Thank you all who serve and have served in our various military forces. We owe much to you.