Monday, November 11, 2013

Not all who served fought

On this Veterans Day, as in all the others, much will be said about those who "fought for their country." But my military service did not involve any fighting, and that is typical of most veterans. We served behind front lines or outside of war zones supporting the massive logistical and record-keeping apparatus of the national defense. We sat behind desks instead of sandbags.

I spent three years in a Washington, D.C., office answering letters from Congress and the public for the Enlisted Personnel Division of the U.S. Coast Guard. I used the skills I learned as a journalism and English major and in newspaper internships to explain the Coast Guard's policies and its need for individual service members to serve where assigned and to follow orders.

It was, in many respects, the easiest job I have ever held. The pace was slow compared to the urgent, anxiety-filled race toward a newsroom deadline, and my biggest challenge was usually getting the approval for my words from all of the commanders, captains and admirals —and even the secretary of transportation, on occasion — who reviewed my prose. I wore a uniform just once a week — a concession to civilian officials who did not want Washington to look like a military camp. My most hazardous duty was navigating D.C. traffic with my car pool each morning and afternoon.

Nevertheless, I learned a great deal from my Coast Guard service, and those few years 40 years ago helped shape my life and still influence it today. I learned to value organizational skills, decisiveness, sacrifice, dedication and all the other traits of military culture. Had my draft number been three digits instead of two, had I managed to dodge the obligation to serve my country, I might have begun my newspaper career earlier, and perhaps followed a different route, but I would not have learned from the outstanding officers who were my mentors, colleagues and friends during those years.

On this Veterans Day, I am thankful for the opportunity I was given to serve and for the experiences and lessons of that service.

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