I have met a lot of veterans throughout my life. In almost every instant, my encounters ended with me being humbled by the valor and the generosity of once warriors. For the better part of a decade, I worked at various Department of Defense facilities in the National Capital Region (NRC) as a defense consultant. It was during this time that I had the honor of working next to men and women who made it their purpose to serve their nation.
I supported copious agencies in my eight year career at Booz Allen Hamilton as I rotated from Fort Belvoir, Moral Welfare and Recreation, Defense Security Cooperation Agency, to Arlington National Cemetery and beyond. In each instance, the best part of my job was sharing stories with active duty personnel or veterans and hearing of their travels. In all honesty, I used to feel a tinge of guilt knowing that I was making three to four times the amount that the average soldier was making. Perhaps the other part of my guilt was the nagging feeling of regret that I always harbored for letting youthful lapses in judgement get in the way of attending West Point and missing the chance to serve my nation like my father and both grandfathers once did.
Let me clear one thing up before I give regular readers a collective whip lash. Though I am vehemently against the military-financial complex, that should not be mistaken as any type of slight against those who serve and put on the uniform. There is a vast difference between those who make fortunes by way of wars and those who enlist in our nation’s military. Some of the most honorable people I’ve ever met in my life were people who joined the military and sacrificed a part of their lives in order to answer the call of duty. The admiration I’ve always had for those who served increased by magnitudes when I went through my time of tribulation and kept encountering an endless stream of veterans who kept lifting my spirits even as they were burdened themselves. I met men and women broken by wars and countless veterans made homeless who nonetheless never gave up the spirit of unity nor stowed away their sprit de corps. Instead of being selfish or bitter—they had every right to after being abandoned in their time of need after giving all to serve their nation—the veterans I met in DC, South Carolina, Iowa, Georgia, Tennessee, and Colorado over the past two and a half years were exemplars of virtue and kindness [read the Story of Sergeant Black]. Perhaps seeing wars up close and personal makes people appreciate humanity more, or perhaps realizing that your life depends on the next man or woman breeds a sense of togetherness—foxholes can be the greatest of equalizers.
I’ve asked a lot of questions to these veterans from my days in the Pentagon to my nights in missions, but one question was asked more than any other. I always made it a point to ask a veteran which rank was the best in the military. Initially, I assumed everyone would say the best rank was an officer like a Captain, a Lieutenant or a Colonel. To my surprise, in almost all instances I asked my question, the answer was not an officer at all. Almost to a soldier, marine, sailor or airman, their answer was Sergeant. The tally was not even close; Sergeants were the overwhelming favorites of all veterans and active duty personnel I surveyed. Even the officers I asked admitted as much. Sergeant was a universal answer when it comes to marines, Gunny Sergeants are more popular than cheddar cheese in Wisconsin.
In hindsight, it makes sense why Sergeants are adored by both their subordinates and their commanding officers. There is something to be said of proximity to conflict. Lieutenant Colonel Rick Belt, who I interviewed when I was in Fort Collins, Colorado not too long ago [see video below], noted that for soldiers at the front lines of wars, every day is the most important day of their lives. Sergeants don’t command from outposts or give orders from the comforts of air conditioned situation rooms, they walk with and among their fellow soldiers. While politicians feign patriotism and businesses sell wars, Sergeants are facing the very hell that is war. Every Sergeant I’ve had the honor of meeting noted that their number one objective was to keep their men and women safe. Sergeants might be tough as bricks on the outside, yet no rank in the military exceeds the care and concern that Sergeants have for those they command. They are at once warriors and more importantly champions of those entrusted to lead. Too often, we celebrate generals as heroes of wars, but those who served will tell you that Sergeants are the heart of every fighting unit. I write this article to say thank you to all veterans who served and as a special acknowledgement of Sergeants whose valor knows no boundaries. May one day we have peace on earth, if that day arrives it will be because veterans who know the ravages of wars lead us away from the clutches of profiteers and warmongers.
Enduring peace. What seems an impossibility could be reality but only if we change how we view leaders as a society. Too often, we equate fame with wisdom and wealth for sagacity. We have become a nation of personalities; we keep gloming on to stars and the illustrious while overlooking those who toil in the shadows to advance humanity. People are becoming famous for being famous and these are the lot we depend on to lead us out of the wilderness. Everyone wants to be a general yet few are willing to be the enlisted soldiers willing to do the hard work to better our nation. This is why men and women who sacrifice come back home shattered by wars only to be neglected by society while people who took deferments to avoid wars are entrusted to be commanders while playing toy soldier on the weekend. As we salute wayward leaders while turning our backs to honorable men and women, we end up getting the exact government we deserve.
I have faith that one day we will take a wiser course as a people. Let me end this with a thank you to a Special Forces Sergeant named Michael I met in 2015 when I was leaving Washington DC for South Carolina. When I told him about my regret of never attending West Point and how I would never forget the way I disappointed my father, he looked at me square in the eyes and uttered words that forever changed my life. “No need for remorse; your mistake was God’s providence,” Micheal noted. “If you had attended West Point, you might not be here today.” These sage advice by Michael lifted a burden off my chest that I held for most of my life. Goes to show, those who served in the military continue to serve others long after their tours of duty come to an end. #SergeantsHonor
“Always do everything you ask of those you command.” ~ George S. Patton
Check out the Ghion Cast below where I interviewed Lieutenant Colonel Rick Belt who is a Vietnam War veteran and a man who gave me hope when I was still mired in my time of hardship.
Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.