Seeing An Old Photo Through New Eyes On My First Real Veterans Day

I had passed the photo in the hallway showing the smiling handsome young Naval officer in uniform literally thousands of times over the years, occasionally pausing to marvel at the fact that this was my Dad when he was in his late teens. He had told me many times of his story of being able to study at Penn's engineering school because of the Navy's V-12 Program, and how he had served on a ship in Pearl Harbor after the attack. But frankly I never had any real perspective on that part of his life because I just could never relate to it. What did I know about military service? With the exception of a few people, most people of my generation had not served and we had little or no direct relationship with the military.

As many people figured out (probably only when they went to try to retrieve their mail or make a deposit at the bank), this past Friday, November 11, was Veterans Day. Other than the practical annoyances it created, I readily admit that, like most others I know, I had planned to go about my Veterans Day much like I had always done, acknowledging this Federal holiday with the usual detachment and with mere passing interest gleaned from stories in the various news media. But this Veterans Day turned out quite different than I ever expected as the result of some experiences I was fortunate to have had over the past several weeks. And I have to say, it was a real eye opener for me on many levels.

In late October, I attended the Coach K Leadership Summit at the Fuqua School of Business at my alma mater Duke University, a unique gathering of a couple dozen high-level execs and business leaders. This year's Summit included not only people like AOL Founder Steve Case, David Gergen and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, but top U.S. Military leaders General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Bob Brown, the Commanding General of the Army's Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning. Surprisingly, I realized that these men were the only currently active military people I had ever really come in direct contact with in any meaningful way.

What struck me immediately (aside from the fact that both Generals were whip smart, engaging, funny and accessible) was their clear and deep commitment to lifelong service in pursuit of a greater good. These men didn't just talk the talk; they had dedicated their entire lives to the service of our country in ways that to most of us would be unfathomable. It struck me that the vast majority of people in the upper socioeconomic bracket of our country have become almost completely removed from any significant connection to or contact with the military. And it also seemed to me that this was symptomatic of a much larger issue.

About a week later back in LA, my wife and I were invited to a group dinner where we got to know Kaj Larsen, a CNN investigative correspondent whom we had previously heard about from our daughter after he had spoken at her high school last year. During the evening, Kaj and several of his friends were introduced and asked to speak to the group about an organization they had formed called Team Rubicon. It turns out that Kaj and the friends accompanying him at the dinner were, unbeknownst to us until that moment, ex-Navy Seals, Black Hawk helicopter rescue pilots, and Special Ops who had come together after retiring from the service to volunteer as the first responders in disaster situations.

Realizing they could use their unique and highly developed skills and discipline for a different kind of mission, these courageous young men had thrown on their backpacks and hiked into the epicenter of the Haiti earthquake where they rescued babies from the rubble, performed over 180 amputations using only Motrin and saved countless lives in the precious hours of the immediate aftermath of the event before the Red Cross and the Israelis could set up operations. And from that mission, Team Rubicon was born. And in speaking with these men after the dinner, you couldn't help but consider them the coolest, smartest, most regular, humble and able people we had ever met (and according to my wife they were also so good looking they could have made up a calendar). We were so impressed with these men and what they were doing that it made us want to help support them in any way we could and spread the word about their incredible service organization. And it also gave us a completely different perspective on who and what "veterans" were.

Last week Kaj invited me to be his guest at the Veterans Day ceremony at the Reagan Library to meet his best friend, Eric Greitens, another Duke grad and ex-Navy Seal whom he had trained and served with (and with whom he had co-founded "The Mission Continues" organization). Eric, a Rhodes scholar and the author of the NY Times best-selling book The Heart and the Fist , would be giving the keynote speech at the event.

I arrived at the Library and walked in among a couple hundred veterans of all ages and racial mixes along with their families, amidst Revolutionary and Civil War re-enactments and displays of flags and military gear of all shapes and sizes. After witnessing a ceremonial flyover directly overhead, I took my seat in the auditorium where a fantastic orchestra and choir from the Southern California Baptist University performed rousing renditions of our national and military anthems. We all recited the Pledge of Allegiance before a military Color Guard presenting arms and colors, and Eric then gave an impressive, impassioned, inspired speech (note: he is really someone to watch as a future leader).

After Eric's remarks, the veterans in attendance from the various military branches were all asked to stand when the orchestra played their branch's respective anthem. It was pretty hard not to be moved and feel proud and patriotic. But most of all, I felt a little shame for not previously seriously comprehending the kind of commitment and service these great men and women gave and continue to give for all of us. And I asked myself, why is it that, despite a lot of lip service, so many of us in this country take the military and those that serve for granted? And how is it that we have become so desensitized to the loss of life and limb these people sacrifice to defend our freedom?

And I also thought about my Dad. He had served in the Navy during World War II along with most of his friends as almost no one back then avoided military service and everyone pitched in to do their part. I made a mental note to call my Dad on the way home to do something I had never done before and tell him how proud I was of him for his service. I finally understood a bit more about what those photos of him in uniform and on his boat with his comrades were all about, and I felt sad that I had never paid much real attention to this part of my Dad's life before.

The ugly fact is that because most upper-middle class people in this country don't end up serving in the military anymore, it is almost completely off their radar. Unlike in World War II, or the Korean War, or even the Vietnam War, because there is no longer a draft, most people can avoid military service altogether if they want to - and most choose not to enlist for obvious reasons. As a result, we ironically now consider those in the upper socio-economic strata who do choose to serve as "heroes", when there are obviously thousands upon thousands of men and women who regularly serve. We just don't personally know any of them.

In many cases these people enlist not because of a higher calling, but merely to take advantage of the training, discipline and job opportunities such service offers and they wouldn't get anywhere else. But we don't really think about these people and what they are risking because so much of our military is now disproportionately comprised of lower socio-economic and minority people, the kinds of people many in the upper strata rarely come in personal contact with on a daily basis. In other words, they are out of sight and therefore out of mind. They and what they do just doesn't affect our daily lives so we don't really think much about them. We just take them and what they do for granted.

In addition, since the Vietnam War (and now the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars), many people in this country have frankly become disillusioned about the real nature and purpose of our various military missions. Fighting off the invading Nazis and Japanese who want to conquer the world including our country is one thing; the vague notion of unilaterally attacking other countries in order to spread democracy in a remote part of the world most people have never heard of and are never likely to ever see is quite another - especially when you are being asked to lay your life on the line for the cause.

President Kennedy once implored us to "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Unfortunately today this has been distorted into the mantra "Ask not what you have to do for your country, but what you can get others to do for your country instead of you". And that is our problem. We have lost our sense of shared sacrifice and that loss is infesting almost everything we try to do these days as a country, not just militarily. In large part this may be because we have lost of our comprehension of what our country's "mission" is.

We have all seen that, when faced with adversity, there are no people on earth better than Americans who can and will bond together and get things done in pursuit of a common cause. We experienced this fleetingly in the aftermath of 9/11, and with various natural disasters and in the pride of the ridding of Bin Laden. But without a Cold War, a Space Race, a Cuban Missile Crisis nuclear threat, or some other urgent threatening call to action, it's hard to get people to collectively focus on anything other than just getting by in their daily lives.

Is this a failure of leadership, a failure of communication, a failure of strategy, a reality of the political gridlock and partisan, corporate fueled politics, or just a reality of the ever-increasing distractions of 21st century America in a global and technologically connected world? Probably all of that is contributing. But one thing is clear: we all need to quickly start thinking long term instead of just short term in our country, start acting and planning with the collective American "we" instead of just the individual "I", and start truly sharing the sacrifice to maintain and grow the America we love and have come to take for granted. And taking the time to understand, honor and appreciate the tremendous shared sacrifice that our brave men and women in the military have given and give for all of us on a daily basis is certainly a great place to start realigning our thinking.

So I'm starting with my Dad.