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To Serve or Not to Serve–and How?



How to find pride and honor in service, that is the question.

I have three threads of thought about the nature of service to braid together. The subject is serious, and I am eager to lay it to rest in order to turn to holiday fun.

One thread is this news that women will now be accepted in combat positions in the military. I don’t know why in the world any woman would want to do this, but I hope that good will come of it in some way. Because women tend to share, we may learn more about the true nature of warfare. The toll combat takes on the military is poorly understood. Fortunately, on December 18, Congress passed a bill requiring that this be studied by the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.

Coincidentally, news had broken a few days earlier about a shocking account of the abuse of Afghan detainees in 2012 by three members of a Navy SEAL team. The newspaper account left readers with a vivid image of one of the men jump-kicking a detainee as he knelt on the ground. After assault with rifle butts and boots by both SEALs and Afghan militiamen, one of the victims later died. This is an offense technically worthy of court-martial, but the SEAL’s commander, apparently on the basis of conflicting reports, treated it as an infraction.

There was clearly a moment when the SEALs just lost it. War is brutal and brutalizing, and probably no one in service is fully exempt from its horrors. Things done in a moment of fury, things done by order, and things witnessed may live on in the shadows of memory forever. Combatants often come back functional but “different.” The suicide rate among veterans climbs.

There is further significance for me in this SEAL story. As readers may remember, I wrote a post in April about William H. McRaven, who had retired in 2014 as an admiral and commander of United States Special Operations. He gave a commencement address at the University of Texas where he is now chancellor, and the topic was the 10 life lessons he had learned through basic training to become a SEAL. It was the best speech I have ever heard.

The values Admiral McRaven revealed made me wish that somehow, some way, he might become our next president. This news about the “cover-up” in Afghanistan reminded me, however, how brutal politics have also become. Even though a report on this event probably never even reached his desk, I can imagine the damage this story would do if McRaven actually were a candidate. I have retired my hope as follows: “You have done enough for your country.”

Lura Grace Heath

Lura Grace Heath

So that is the second strand of the braid, and the third comes from a deep detour into the history of a relative. Lura Grace Heath, my great aunt, died 26 years ago this month.  She began her professional career as a nurse, and she served in the Army Nurse Corps at the 3,000-bed base hospital in Chaumont, France, during World War I. She left to me her memorabilia of those 13 months, a tour of duty in which she always felt great pride.

The album consists mostly of documents, but a couple of things are especially memorable. One is her white cotton Red Cross cap and the other is a set of six songs of the era that she typed up on paper now yellowing and brittle. One was composed by an American lieutenant to restore morale in his battery. It is amusing in whole, but it begins like this: “I want to go home! I want to go home! The whizz-bangs they whistle, the cannons they roar; I don’t want to stay over here anymore.”

After the war, Aunt Lura continued with her career as a nurse and in public health. At age 70, she retired after 10 years as county director of the Welfare Department in Roswell, New Mexico. When she died a few months short of 100, I provided a verse for her gravestone from poet Rabindranath Tagore that I thought spoke of her long history:

I slept and dreamt that life was all joy.

I awoke and saw that life was but service.

I served and understood that service was joy.

It’s interesting that a year after the end of World War I, “The war to end war,” the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote was ratified. Four wars later, women have won the right to serve in combat and also face the possibility of someday being conscripted to do so. One wonders if this is progress. The question hovering in my mind is not only how all of us, both men and women, can best serve our country but also how better to elevate and honor that path. As the dark features of the presidential campaigns multiply, that need seems daily more urgent.

And so I’ve said my piece for the time being. I hope my readers will enjoy a wonderful holiday before I resume, and may 2016 bless us all with many moments of joy–including from a chosen way of service.




2 Responses to “To Serve or Not to Serve–and How?”

  1. Barbara McCarthy

    Thank you again, dear Ellen, for voicing so articulately thoughts that have been roaming in my head over time. (I also really like the verse on the gravestone). Have a peaceful and joyous Christmas and New Year.
    Love and peace,

  2. Carter Stevens Molony

    I love reading your blogs! I too listened to McRaven’s commencement address and was impressed the same as you. It validated making my bed every morning–something I knew instinctively from childhood had to be the first item to start my day.

    All my very best for the holidays, a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year with hopes 2016 will bring more peace, more joy, good health!