Thanks for Your Service, Too

There’s no military monopoly on devotion and self-sacrifice.


During the annual Veteran's Day parade in New York, 2016.
During the annual Veteran’s Day parade in New York, 2016. PHOTO: PORTER BINKS/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Here’s something only a veteran can say these days: There’s more to service than the military.

Much of America doesn’t believe it. By itself, the word “service” can pertain to almost anything, even pumping your own gas. But add the definite article—“the service”—and you denote only the military kind. It’s an indication of the widespread American belief that military service matters more than any other kind.

During my 21 years in the Army, leaders frequently praised their troops for volunteering and referred to us as “the 1% of citizens who serve.” It’s an easy way to pat soldiers on the back. While deployed in Iraq, I often heard: “The Army went to war, and America went to the mall.”

That was unfair. Many civilians back home tutored at-risk kids, held down emergency-room night shifts, or operated domestic-violence shelters. Seeking peace, law-enforcement officers ventured into danger. Pastors helped congregations walk with God. Teachers, volunteer coaches, journalists, mentors, social workers and countless others made small and large sacrifices. Some, like those of us in the military, chose a vocation of service rather than a bigger paycheck. Others turned off the TV, and turned themselves to their neighborhood’s problems.

The nation honors none of them with a national holiday. I have on occasion eaten lunch at a restaurant, asked for the bill, and learned that an anonymous benefactor had already paid. I’ve never heard of that happening for someone without a uniform.

Although military service entails self-sacrifice, we don’t join out of pure altruism. For most of us, service is high on the list of motivations, but so are educational opportunity, adventure, the chance to see the world, free health care, and a splendid retirement package. I spent years deployed away from my family, but my career has hardly been an exercise in self-denial.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently told sailors at Naval Base Kitsap: “Because of what you’re doing now, you’re not going to be laying on a shrink’s couch when you’re 45 years old [to] say, ‘What the hell did I do with my life?’ Why? Because you served others; you served something bigger than you.”

Just because something’s bigger than you doesn’t mean it’s worth serving. Think of organized crime. But service to a worthwhile cause is something to honor—in the military and outside it.

A Zen story tells of Japanese soldiers who, worn out from battle, headquartered themselves in a temple. When the temple cook made them simple food, one of their leaders became angry. Accustomed to special treatment, he lashed out at the priest: “Who do you think we are? We are soldiers, sacrificing our lives for our country. Why don’t you treat us accordingly?”

The priest responded curtly. “Who do you think we are? We are soldiers of humanity, aiming to save all sentient beings.”

The priest points to an important truth: Though nation is important, it’s hardly the only cause that makes service worthwhile. American society should reconsider its default position that esteems military service over any other kind. Let us commit to honoring the actions of all who serve, rather than only the few who do so in uniform.

Mr. Brough is a retired Army officer, Iraq veteran, and CEO of Brough Writing Solutions, a communications firm.

Appeared in the November 10, 2017, print edition.

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