The first day on the road to becoming a veteran is long and strange. An early morning gathering where a group of strangers raise their hand and take the oath and are inducted into a branch of the U.S. military. Whether a cold, snowy wintery day or a sizzling hot summer day, there are likely to be similarities for most, if not all who go through the process.
The group of strangers travel by various modes of transport to arrive at the end of a long day (such as it was for this writer) at a so-called “reception” station. Our reception included nothing to drink or eat. We were received and greeted by a group of men yelling. They wore starched olive drab green fatigue uniforms with stripes on their sleeves, encouraging us to exit our buses and get in a formation.
The pavement was painted with examples of how we should stand at attention in our traveling civilian clothes. There were shoeprints on the pavement. Our feet angled to cover those painted shoeprints, and this would be our initial military formation. Our “greeters” continued yelling until everyone from numerous buses were out and in formation. We had enough recruits to form a new basic training company.
Here, I digress to underscore an important facet about induction, basic training, and military service. In 1948, President Truman signed an Executive Order (No. 9981) that abolished segregation in the U.S. military. The Executive Order states, in part, that “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin”. Given the year of this Order, it is safe to say that the overwhelming majority of today’s veterans served after President Truman signed this Order.
For some, military basic training provided many “firsts” in their lives: the first time they had been away from home for an extended period, the first-time firing weapons, the first time experiencing group punishment because of the actions of one individual. There were many firsts, the first time sharing living space with complete strangers. One of the significant “firsts” is living in the barracks with people of a different race or from a very different ethnic background and religion.
The weeks, months and years that follow that day of induction are about mission, teamwork and, above all, readiness and national security. The time in the military should also deliver some insight and educate military members about people from those different backgrounds, whether racial or religious, and the reality of all working toward a common cause and objective.
During a period of our lives, we veterans lived and worked with people from across the spectrum of ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds. Despite those fundamental differences, we took an oath to protect others who are different, and we served with them, taking the same oath of service.
In a country that is now engulfed in division, much of it promoted by elected officials, veterans need to step up and reject efforts to divide by race, color, religion, national origin and the new issue of division, sexual orientation. Veterans need to engage in some introspection about what they are for: a country allowed to be divided by superficial, self-promoters or those who are committed to evidence-based realities even when they are inconvenient or don’t align with personal views.
Veterans who continue to be committed to the oath of service cannot be allowed to stand by phrases and sayings like “My Oath of Enlistment has no Expiration Date” but then support those who succeed and profit from creating and embracing increased divisions among the citizenry. Indeed, if today’s veterans still believe in the oath taken upon induction to protect and defend the constitution then there must be a return to accepting facts, rejecting the rhetoric of division and efforts to undermine the very foundations of the democracy we took an oath to protect.
This Veterans Day, like the ones before, politicians will wrap themselves in the flag and attempt to convince us of their patriotism, yet conduct themselves every other day in ways that contradict not just the oath veterans once took, but the oath of office they took. Veterans, like the rest of the population, will not agree on everything, but it is incumbent on this subset of the overall population to remember the oath taken and to continue to defend the constitution in the face of today’s challenges.