The other day I was eating lunch in a restaurant in downtown Columbus when this happened at the table next to me: a young man wearing very short hair and an Army uniform sat down with his mother, father, brother and girlfriend.
A few minutes later, the same thing happened at the table behind me, except this time there were grandparents too, and a sister instead of a brother.
When I left, a half-dozen similar lunch parties were in progress.
Around here, it’s a sight we see often: teenagers who’ve just graduated from basic training and are celebrating with those who love them.
We probably take these new soldiers for granted. I know I do.
By take for granted, I don’t mean we don’t appreciate them. We thank them for serving, and what we’re really thanking them for is their decision to sacrifice their personal comfort and protect our freedom, and for what they’re going to do, which will almost certainly be difficult and may even be deadly.
By take for granted, I mean that because we see so many young people around town who’ve enlisted, it’s easy to think that it’s a common thing for a young person to do.
According to the Pew Research Center, a Generation Xer is more than twice as likely to have served in the military, a Baby Boomer six times as likely, and a young man in 1963 more than 11 times as likely.
It’s just not something that today’s youths even consider an option.
And in many cases, it’s not something they could pursue if they wanted. In 2014, the Pentagon announced that more than 70 percent of people between the ages of 17 and 24 were ineligible for military service because of lack of education, criminal history or obesity or other health problems.
About 31 years ago, I enrolled in college on an R.O.T.C. scholarship. I’d like to think I did this to serve my country, build character and dedicate myself to something greater than myself. But it also enabled me to attend a much better university than my family could have afforded.
After my freshman year, like all students on an R.O.T.C. scholarship, I was given the option of walking away from any future military obligation without having to pay a cent for my first year of school. For me, that would have required me to leave Vanderbilt.
I remember briefly considering it. I disliked waking up early and I disliked long-distance running, and I especially disliked doing both at the same time. I disliked wearing a uniform and marching on the campus lawn while my rich civilian friends drank beer and laughed at me. And I disliked taking orders from upperclassmen who thought leaders were born not made – and guess which ones they thought they were?
But these seemed like silly reasons to stop doing something. My parents had raised me to stick to my commitments, and they’d also taught me that not everything worth doing feels good while you’re doing it. Indeed, if you’re struggling, then you’re probably growing.
Today, my own children are choosing their way in the world. As far as I know, none of them are considering military service, and I must say this brings me some relief. When I chose the military, the nation wasn’t embroiled in a global war on terror, and my odds of seeing combat action, let alone putting my life on the line, seemed slim.
To those brave young men and women I see with their families in The Loft and The Black Cow and The Cannon BrewPub, I say this: Thanks for doing something that nobody else in this day and age can or will do. We need you, and we love you.