Today is Veterans Day and, for the first time in many years, I will spend it out of uniform. I retired from the Marine Corps last year and entered a new world – that of human rights advocacy. I joined Human Rights First because it struck me as idealistic, principled, committed, and yes, even pragmatic. It seemed a place very similar to my beloved Marine Corps, which many might find odd, but my premonitions were correct.
As I suspected, I have found the cultures here and in the Marine Corps to be extraordinarily similar. Both are filled with rugged altruists – people who want to go out into the world to serve some cause higher than themselves. I saw it in the men and women I led who joined the military in the wake of 9-11. I see it today in people I have the honor of working with at Human Rights First. Both groups are people who see their lives in terms of moral purpose. I watch some of the most talented lawyers in our country, racked with law school debt who toil endlessly to give representation to political refugees. I joke with my new colleagues that it’s easier because there are no IEDs to dodge, but yet their courage and commitment to a noble endeavor is no less than I witnessed around me in the military.
While the front lines of war are obviously very different from the day to day struggles of an NGO office, it has been my experience that the people in both cultures share common traits. They possess the stamina to continue in an often thankless profession, to keep serving without any rewards – no fame, no fortune, very little gratitude, much disillusionment, and often terrible heartbreak. They give an unconditional commitment to a specific purpose. They all love their nation and work tirelessly to uphold its ideals.
Veterans Day now is different than it used to be, fundamentally because the military comprises such a small section of our population. Americans will repeat those words, “Thank you for your service,” but the words often will ring as a cliché, perhaps, because the implication is also “I could never imagine what you’ve been through,” which wasn’t the case in previous generations. Everyone had a brother, a neighbor, a friend who served. That captures the divide – those who don the cloth of their nation and serve are less than one half of one percent of the population. That divide is pervasive. It is the result of a smaller, all-volunteer, more professional military that we built after Vietnam.
I hope that if you don’t know a veteran that you will pledge this year to get to know one. I live in the world of east coast metropolitan elites, many of whom do not know someone who served in the military. Veterans are often either pitied or undeservedly placed in the “hero” category. We are neither. We are far more similar to you than you might think, quite simply like these people I get to work with today – dedicated to upholding and defending our nation’s Constitution, protecting its core ideals and working toward a world with less war and less suffering.