I have to admit this week I was a bit emotional. I celebrated both my birthday and voted in a historic election on Tuesday and today I celebrate Veteran’s Day. When I joined the Air Force in 2002, I did not know what I was getting myself into, quite frankly. I was an eager California surfer gal ready to be G.I. Jane. While I had my share of boot shining, early morning runs, and marching in formation, it was the friendships and exposure to Americans of all walks of life that have stayed with me the most.
Around this time of year, most Americans are regaled with stories of the overseas adventures and heroic actions taken by veterans. While I always enjoy sharing my global experiences — and even showing off my impressive Persian and Afghan carpet collection — I really delight in talking about the friendships I formed and how I really learned about the diversity and strength of America.
I joined the Air Force at age seventeen and the extent of my global experience was a post-graduation trip to Cancún. I was raised by a single mother and grew up without healthcare. When my mother passed away of cancer a year after I joined the Air Force, she had never left the continental United States. I grew up in a beach town of ten thousand residents that could hardly be described as diverse. My basic training flight was the most ethnically diverse group I had ever seen.
Through my experiences serving on domestic bases and overseas, I had the fortune to work with an amazing cross-section of America. I bonded with emigres from Poland and Russia, worked with naturalized soldiers from Jamaica, learned about country music from polite gentlemen from the South, experienced Midwestern friendship, imagined adventures to New York City with fellow Airmen from the City, and became lifelong friends with local Iraqi interpreters. I was a bit misunderstood at first, wearing my Ugg boots and miniskirts typical of California beach girls in the early 2000s and I didn’t quite understand the big deal about Waffle House or Taco Cabana until I experienced road trips through the South with friends.
I am now using my GI Bill to earn a law degree in San Francisco and I have been engrossed with my constitutional law studies. It is amazing that the founders of this country’s democracy had such foresight and vision. Equality, freedom of religion and thought, compassion for the weak and vulnerable: these are the unique American ideals, enshrined in our Constitution that make us a beacon of light around the world. As I read the texts, I think back to my service in the military. Among my fellow servicemembers, we came from all walks of life yet we were able to come together for the mission. One of the military’s key mottos is ‘No one left behind.’ We don’t caveat that depending on one’s rank or position in the unit. When we don our uniforms, we are all in it together and will equally share in our triumphs.
Over the last year, I have seen a lot of division emerge in this country. A lot of frustration and contempt has been directed outward to certain groups. Instead of celebrating in the beauty of all of the red, white, and blue, parts of America have been demonized. What I’m seeing in America today is reminiscent to some of the darker days I saw when overseas in conflict zones.
I’ve been frustrated. I was trained and given the tools to track and locate insurgents, but solving an increasingly divisive and acrimonious American public is proving to be more vexing. Though we are no longer in uniform, a sizeable number of us veterans feel a duty to continue our service at home. Because we were fortunate to have experienced what makes America truly great, we want to ensure that Americans here at home renew a commitment to the ideals enshrined by our founders.
This weekend, American flags will gallantly flap in the breeze. I ask that all Americans talk to someone new, whether it is at your local grocery store or at a Veteran’s Day ceremony. I will be volunteering and look forward to striking up a conversation while conducting fire abatement in a local park. We all have our personal challenges and frustrations and through conversations with new people, we share in that common humanity and compassion.
This Veteran’s Day, it is not all about veterans, but rather about what veterans represent. We represent the diversity and beauty of a group of Americans coming together for a common cause. As President Bill Clinton aptly said, “There is nothing wrong in America that can’t be fixed with what is right in America.” I ask that all reflect on these words this holiday weekend. When America renews its commitment to our core principles and celebrates in our diversity, we are unstoppable.