I recently had the privilege of sitting on the Service Academy Nomination Selection Board for the 5th Congressional District. It’s the eighth year I have had the opportunity to help select the men and women who will go on to serve our nation in uniform after graduation from one of our premier service academies. It is a tough cut, with the best of the best competing for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
In addition to reviewing their academic record, essay, letters of recommendation and a host of other documents, we ask them a series of questions designed to determine if service to the nation is truly their primary objective. Every year the board asks these young Americans the rhetorical question, “If you could change one thing in our nation today, what would it be”? Almost to a person, this year, these outstanding young Americans said, “I would stop the divisiveness in our country, and I would ask Americans to respect each other and their differences and to please get along.” I was floored and the whole board was moved. Many of us feel the same way, but to hear our children — our future — not only recognize it but ask for it to stop as part of a selection to become warfighters, speaks volumes about where we are today as a nation.
The heated rhetoric, hate and anger that has divided us is in full few of the next generation, our children, and that should cause us to pause and to reflect. Veterans have served their country overseas, in combat and in faraway places that are much different than the great country we call America. Veterans have seen things that most Americans cannot even imagine and frankly, should never see. We have fought wars and have seen the complete breakdown of the rule of law and humanity in countries much older than the United States. We deploy and march into combat wearing the American flag on our shoulder and behind the American flag and with our nation’s support. We try and teach the countries we fight in that there is more than ourselves and we introduce them to democracy and freedom. While our successes in this endeavor have varied over the years, when we come home, we are thanked for our service, and we know that we have truly fought for our freedom. A veteran’s hope is that we made a difference.
So why can’t our country get along and appreciate the freedoms we have secured for them? Our children are literally asking us to stop hating each other and to focus on our future. As veterans, we have seen chaos and cruelty and the breakdown of societal norms and decency in combat.
Combat veterans know just how far some human beings will go to gain power and to destroy others. Today, as an example, the world has a front-row seat to this in Russia’s attack against the free nation of Ukraine.
When veterans get home we feel relieved to be among Americans and all the goodness this country has to offer. We try and normalize and enjoy some of the freedoms we have earned. It is our hope and prayer that our sacrifices have somehow made this country a little better. Our hope that our children’s future is somehow insured with the blood of patriots and that they will have more opportunity than we had.
But today, if we take the time to listen, our children are asking us to be better and be the examples they should aspire to be. When our children tell us that we need to stop fighting, to get along, to listen, and to work together for their future, we really do need to take a moment to think about where we are.
Disagreement is not disrespect. Different viewpoints do not make people less trustworthy or less patriotic. How we interpret the U.S. Constitution, how we vote, how we feel about various issues, should not divide us but should unite us in our love of this country.
Veterans who have seen combat know that while bravery lies deep within each of us, none of us did our jobs in combat in isolation and without the help of others. Veterans are part of a team, and they have much to teach us in trying to bring our Country back together again. If America is to stand up again, to stand for freedom and to be a beacon to the rest of the world, we need to respect each other and the lives each of us has been given.
Today on Veteran’s Day, when you see veterans in our community, know that they are bound together through service to this nation. Understand that veterans are part of a team, and this team is a part of who we are as Americans. Look to the example of the American veteran and look into the eyes of your children this year as we resolve to unite once again as a nation. That is this veteran’s hope.
Dan Williams is the district 1 Teller County commissioner and current chairman of the board; a retired U.S. Army colonel and multiple-combat veteran including in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is the Post 1980 American Legion Commander, and a Post 6051 VFW Life Member. He lives with his wife Suzan, a retired U.S. Army nurse and colonel on their ranch near Cripple Creek.