For the first time in my military career, I was asked to be a reenlistment officer for one of my soldiers. Over these past months, I have witnessed quite a few reenlistments. A small crowd always gathers around the American flag and an officer chosen by the soldier administers the oath. I have often wondered if it is more of an honor to give the oath or take it. Perhaps they are equally important, as is the presence of the community who comes together to take part in these events.
I spent a few moments before we began to speak with my soldier. Though I see him all the time, he is not one who I have had many extensive conversations. What I knew about him, at least until today, was that he was reliable, polite, and willing to help whenever there was a technology crisis. These are the kind of people who help our lives go along more smoothly, especially when we depend on our computers or that our email will be accessible, twenty-four hours a day, even in a place like Afghanistan. But as we waited for the crowd to quiet, he took a moment to tell me about his daughter who will be turning two about a week before we get back to Texas. Though he and his wife have plans to postpone her birthday so he can take part in it, I realized quickly how difficult it has been for him to miss this year of his daughter’s life.
Sometimes I wonder why our soldiers decided to sign up again for this job which has, at least over the past eleven years, guaranteed huge stints of separation from family, missed birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays, and the nagging possibility that fragile relationships may not have what it takes to survive the pressure and stress of war. I know for many of our soldiers this is the best way to support a family and be gainfully employed. Yet, knowing the realities of the sacrifice, I can’t help but think that even a minimum wage job might offer a better stability.
But, sure enough, many of our soldiers, some immigrants from other countries and continents who have enlisted to gain citizenship and have a chance at a life grounded in freedom, continue to raise their right hand and pledge to support and defend the constitution of the United States against all potential threats, foreign and domestic, even if it means a chance of losing everything. Signing up the first time is one thing, but saying yes for a second time around, with eyes wide open, knowing the cost, is certainly reason to gather around our flag, stand at attention, and witness the profundity of such a promise.
As I prepared to administer the oath, I felt my nerves flutter. No matter how many times I stand up before a crowd either to pronounce a benediction or say a prayer of invocation, I can’t help but feel a surge of both fear and excitement. I mentioned this to my soldier, and he attempted to console me with the simple fact that the paperwork had been signed already. In actuality he was reenlisted. But, I know better to dismiss an opportunity such as this, to remind our group, however small, that for now and in some ways for always, we belong to one another.
Making this promise before colleagues and friends makes it all the more poignant. In witnessing such an event, we become more deeply accountable to each other, knowing that on some days, one of us may need to step up and remind the other of that promise made in a seeming distant past. In the end, this is why we stand alongside of each other, to be a reminder that none of us are ever alone in our endeavors and to be reminded that through both our vows and our shared experience we are forever bound together.