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Service, Country, and a Kevin Bacon Movie

November 10, 2017
Posted by: Sarah Fields, Public Affairs and Civic Engagement Manager, Peninsula

Today marks the 242nd birthday of the United States Marine Corps. Tomorrow is Veterans Day, the official public holiday to celebrate the service of our veterans. Not to be confused with Memorial Day, Veterans Day is a day to acknowledge the service or our all-volunteer military and those who chose to serve. This Veterans Day, American Jews, most of us civilians, may want to honor our veterans by a deeper understanding of what it means to serve in the 21st Century, rather than simply thanking them for their service.

Last month, following the deaths of four US Soldiers in Niger, we had the rare opportunity to hear from White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly in the press briefing room (full transcript). Several things that General Kelly said left viewers and members of the press frustrated and even upset. He was right, however, to point out the significant divide between our civilian and military communities. Now, more than perhaps at any other time in our great country’s history, many Americans are disconnected from young veterans and current active duty men and women. And within the Jewish community we are perhaps even more disconnected. Jews make up just over 2 percent of the population yet only about 0.33 percent of current, active-duty troops.

In Kelly’s lecture to the press corps, he suggested that watching the movie, Taking Chance, about an officer whose life is changed after taking an assignment to escort home the body of a 19-year-old Marine killed in Iraq, might help civilians build understanding about military life. General Kelly should certainly know of what he speaks. He served in the Marine Corps honorably for several decades and both of his sons became Marine Officers. His younger son, Second Lieutenant Robert Kelly, gave the ultimate sacrifice as a Marine while deployed in Afghanistan in 2009.

We are incredibly fortunate to be a country with individual rights and privileges. Our military protects those freedoms abroad and servicemembers ought to enjoy them fully at the conclusion of service. The First Amendment guarantees the right to free exercise of religion, ensuring that our government will not favor any one religion over another. While our military respects the observance of different religions, because we do not have a state religion, the military has created ritual and practice that complements actual religious practice. Taking Chance, which I watched following General Kelly's advice to do so, shows us a ritual from the US military that is close to religious: bringing home a Killed in Action (KIA) servicemember.

The movie is about Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl, who has volunteered to be the Casualty Officer to accompany a young KIA Marine’s journey home. At the beginning of the movie, Strobl feels challenged by the relative ease of his life. While many of his fellow Marines are at war, he has a comfortable cubicle at Quantico and a pleasant home life. He feels he still has more to sacrifice for Corps and Country. However, the movie ends by recognizing that after his combat deployment in Desert Storm, Lieutenant Colonel Strobl deserves peace. He comes to accept his own sacrifice as having been enough.

While becoming a soldier, sailor or Marine means losing your individuality to become part of something greater, becoming a veteran means the freedom to regain it as a civilian.

The film is worth your time -- General Kelly is not wrong about that. However, I believe he is mistaken nonetheless. In fact, I'd suggest that if he truly believes that simply watching a movie is all that's required to bridge the divide between veterans and civilians then he has some reflecting to do. I would encourage us all to instead consider what it truly means to thank someone for their service, today or any other day. What does gratitude, backed up with actions and not just words, really look like?

When a servicemember becomes a veteran, the wait times for Veterans Affairs services and benefits can be months or even years long. This is simply unacceptable. JCRC has worked for the past several years with Hiring Our Heroes, a job fair for veterans. If your company has a veterans hiring program, find out if it is active and if there are ways you can promote and support it. If one does not exist, work with Human Resources on starting one. On this Marine Corps Birthday and on Veterans Day, it is my sincere hope that veterans -- from officers like General Kelly to younger, recently separated enlisted men and women -- are able to recognize and find the peace of having served and having come home.

Keep in mind also that there are many, many ways to serve society -- in the military or as educators, advocates, attorneys, healthcare professionals, and appointed and elected officials. All of these roles can and do help to bridge the divides among us. As Pirkei Avot, the tractate of the Mishnah containing a wealth of ethical teachings for the Jewish community, reminds us:

"Hillel said, do not separate yourself from the community, do not trust yourself till the day you die, do not judge your fellow until you reach his place, do not make a statement that cannot be understood, [intending] that ultimately it will be understood. And do not say, "When I am free, then I will learn," for perhaps you will never be free." (Pirkei Avot 2:5)

 

PHOTO: Taking Chance (2009 TV Movie) publicity still via IMDB.