Like most Americans, I believe we should recognize and celebrate all of our nation's veterans. Yet, currently, we fail to recognize a massive contingent of citizens who have given countless lives and years to protect our freedom and liberty -- Frontline Civilians. It's time we fixed that.
I served as an embedded combat adviser with Afghan National Security Forces in Ghazni, Afghanistan in 2008. When we arrived at our small outpost, I was shocked to find a contingent of American civilians (mostly police officers) stationed on the bases throughout the province. A combination of State Department employees and contractors, their job was to instruct the Afghan Police in the rule of law -- something that as law enforcement professionals they were far better equipped to do than me (an intelligence officer) and my contingent of mostly infantry soldiers. These men drove around in armored pick-up trucks. Once I saw what a Taliban IED could do to even the most heavily armored US MRAP, I knew the trucks were little more than tin coffins. Eventually, we insisted they ride in our vehicles as we came to see them as full members of our units, and thus in need of the same protection afforded to us in uniform. By the end of our tour, I'd challenge an outsider to distinguish civilian from soldier -- we were that close.
Recently, I attended a conference of National Security professionals, policy makers and activists. Many in attendance had, at one point, served either in the military or as a civilian in an area of crisis and instability. During a discussion centered on a need for more citizens to engage in public service, Rep. Seth Moulton articulated a future ideal -- what if, a generation from now, the question "So, where did you serve?" was one that everyone felt the need to answer by age 30?
Instead of advocating for the return of the draft, Moulton was joining prominent leaders such as President Obama and General McChrystal (who is leading the Franklin Project) to call on all Americans to engage in some act of public service in their lifetime -- just as the civilians with whom I served had done.
As the discussion closed, the moderator asked all in the audience who were military veterans to stand and be recognized for their service. And as I rose up, I wondered, why is it that we only ever thank military veterans in this way? I know plenty of American civilians who shared every hardship, danger, and in some cases, even injuries that I did as a soldier. Why does America's gratitude stop at a uniform?
I decided to sit back down as the applause continued -- it just didn't feel right to stand and receive public thanks when so many in that room had served multiple tours of duty as Frontline Civilians. Indeed, President Obama, Rep. Moulton, and General McChrystal are right -- we need generations of Americans to strive for something greater than themselves. A call to National Service is a profound place to start. But, to get there, we need to ensure that we don't continue to deify the military veteran at the expense of her civilian brother. In the Army we have a saying: "One team, one fight." I served with plenty of Frontline Civilians who I consider to be veterans, regardless of the clothes they wore while performing their duty on behalf of all of us. We were all part of the same team. We all fought in the same fight. They deserve our thanks. I'm no longer standing until they're asked to as well.