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A message on Veterans Day from President Caldwell

The People We Call Veterans
A message from Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell, IV, President of Georgia Military College

Today I want to do exactly what this day is intended for - to extend my gratitude and sincerest thanks to each and every one of our Veterans, who at some point in their life heard that call to serve their country, and made the choice to answer it. That's a decision that every single Veterans has in common, and it's a decision they can be proud of for the rest of their life. Thank you for making that decision.

I spend a great deal of time thinking about the men and women who answer that call. I think about what kind of world we would live in without that kind of people. Where would our great nation be if we didn’t have so many people who put service before self and answer that call?

Bill Crawford was a genuinely nice guy. He worked as a Janitor at the United States Air Force Academy, and he loved interacting with the young men there. Telling them stories about his days as a boxer. He had the kind of personality that just stands out- the kind of personality that you notice.

A new cadet would strike up a conversation with a fellow cadet that went something like this, “I met the janitor today.”

“Mr. Crawford? Nice guy, isn’t he,” the second cadet would say.

“He sure is. And really interesting too. Did you know he used to be a boxer?”

“Oh yeah. He was a local champion. Does that surprise you?”

“You sure wouldn’t guess it just from looking at him.”

But he was a boxer. In fact, Bill Crawford thought he was good enough to have gone pro, but he never had the chance. Like so many men of his generation, Bill Crawford gave up everything to answer America’s call to serve.

Everyone who has spent even a single day in any branch of our military knows that call to serve is not an easy call to answer. Much is asked of the man or woman who answers that call. The first thing you discover is that service always entails one personal sacrifice after another. It’s a series of forfeitures you have to make. You have to leave your family- spouse, children. Your friends. Your home. You trade all that to go have orders barked at you and embark on what is probably the most difficult few weeks of your life up to that point.
When you make that decision to put service before self, everything in your life becomes like the equipment you load into a rucksack. Everyone who has ever served from the beginning of time knows that packing up that equipment is a very delicate balancing act. You’re walking a fine line. You want to make sure that you have every single thing you could possibly need for any situation you might find yourself in, and at the same time, you’re looking for anything that can be left behind to lighten the load. Do I really need this? It’s pretty heavy? Can I possibly live without it? You could pick any soldier at random, dump out their bag to go through the items, and you’d discover that there’s a correlation between how much each item weighs and how crucially important it is. The more an item weighs, the more important it must be.

Most of the time, that’s what service before self means. It means leaving things behind even if you need them. And I’m not talking about a weapon, or a carton of cigarettes, or some eating utensils. I’m talking about those people you love. Everyone you have to leave behind to in order to serve. Your family. Your friends. Sometimes the mission will ask you to leave the whole country behind. And you do it. It tears you up inside. You don’t want to do it. But you know that if we don’t have people who are willing to plow through all of that personal sacrifice. If we don’t have people who are willing to make forfeiture after forfeiture- people who give of themselves no matter what is asked- then our nation and what it represents won’t survive. So, what can you do? You get the order, so you ruck up and head out into the great unknown. And you stay thankful for what you still have.

I company’s third platoon had moved up a hillside when an enemy machine gun nest began to rain death around them.  A young Private attacked to the left, destroying the gun that was threatening his fellow American soldiers.  Then, without hesitation, he shifted his attack to the right, knocking out the second enemy emplacement. He turned the captured machine gun on the now routed and fleeing German soldiers. When the gunfire finally stopped, the men of the 3rd platoon who were still standing thanked God that they had survived, and they knew it wouldn’t have been possible without the heroic actions of that young Private. They all wanted to thank the Private, but… nobody could find him.

The Private received the Medal of Honor- the nation’s highest award for military valor- for his actions that day, but they weren’t able to place it around his neck and thank him for the service he had rendered. Instead, they had to hand it to his broken-hearted father as a posthumous honor. His father wept.
Because the people you leave at home, they’re veterans too really. And they didn’t even sign up to serve, but they have to make the big sacrifices too. In a way, they’re all drafted into their service. They’re forced to make the sacrifices and to understand the greater picture of why those sacrifices have to be made.

So what do they do? They live their lives on pins and needles. They do their best to go about their daily lives pretending everything is normal. They try to make it through each day without spending every waking minute wondering if their soldier is okay. Even though they pull themselves out of bed knowing that each sunrise could be the dawn of a catastrophic day. Because somewhere- maybe on the other side of the world- their loved one’s well-being is in God’s hands.

It’s a little different when you’re the one in harm’s way. You’re out on the mission, you’re out there doing what you were trained to do. You’re focused and there’s not a lot of downtime. But when there is. When you get that downtime- that’s when the homesickness rushes through you hard. It’s like standing in the ocean and being hit in the back by a wave.
The context of service changes tremendously from decade to decade. The equipment changes. The food changes. Who’s ever had a Meal Ready to Eat? Did you poke holes in it and heat it up with some C4?

In early wars, lots of guys died from drinking the water. By Vietnam, you could purify water with halazone and then take the lomotil tablets to help with whatever problems the halazone caused you.

If you served in Korea or WWII, you didn’t even have the MREs. You had your C-rations and your K-rations.

The uniforms change- if you served in Cuba during the Spanish American War, you’d take your blue coat and smear as much mud on it as you could. That was the only way to protect yourself from snipers who could see that blue coat standing out from a mile away. By the time men were fighting in Vietnam, they had boonie suits and tigerstripes. Today, we have the digital camouflage.

The missions have certainly changed. A new decade often brings with it new enemies and new threats to freedom. America began with soldiers fighting to free us from the British. A couple hundred years later, America fought alongside the British to save the world from Hitler. Then fifty years of proxy wars to prevent the spread of communism throughout the world.

Then, Saddam Hussein, The Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS.

The context of service changes with the world. As enemies. New threats. New technologies.
What hasn’t changed from day one is the type of person who answers the call to serve. The type of person who is willing to say, “my country needs me, so I’m going to make the sacrifices.” It’s a selfless action.

And those who serve have to be selfless. They have to be willing to put the service above everything else. That’s how you end up surrounded by the kind of men and women you can trust to the end of the Earth. It’s not casual trust, it’s the ultimate trust. You won’t leave them behind no matter what and you know down to your bones that that person next to you won’t leave you behind no matter what.

Men like that Private who saved I company’s third platoon and received a posthumous Medal of Honor. But even though that Private was presumed dead, he wasn’t actually killed in the battle. He was taken prisoner by the Germans and held in a POW camp.  When the Russian Army advanced into Germany, the Private and his fellow POWs were arched 500 miles through the freezing mountains. 52 days, 10 miles a day, fueled by one meal that consisted of one potato. He was finally liberated in the Spring of 1945 by an advancing tank column.

He got to return home and hold the Medal of Honor that had been awarded to him posthumously when America thought he’d been lost.

That Private blended back into to civilian life- back into anonymity. He went to work at the U.S. Air Force Academy.   

“I met the janitor today.”

“Mr. Crawford? Nice guy, isn’t he,”

“He sure is. And really interesting too. Did you know he used to be a boxer?”

“Oh yeah. He was a local champion. Does that surprise you?”

“You sure wouldn’t guess it just from looking at him.”

“Don’t you know about the janitor?”

“Know what?”

“That janitor wears the Medal of Honor.”

I spend a lot of time thinking about the kind of people who answer the call to serve.

Private Crawford’s story is a good reminder that there are heroes among us. I wonder how many students took the time to know him.  How many were humble enough to know the janitor. I wonder if any of them discovered his story and wished they had been more courteous.
Those are the kind of people who have gotten this country where it is today. Men and women like Private Crawford who heard that call to serve and answered it. Most of them don’t have Medals of Honor. Most of them weren’t prisoners of war. But that’s okay. Like I said before, the context of every veteran’s service is different. But every single one of them decided to put service before self and answer their country’s call. 

Those are the people we call veterans. And they deserve every bit of thanks we have to give.