Remarks from Monday’s Veterans Day Commemoration

This week's post is from Dr. James Gilman, recently retired U.S. Army Major general and commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command, and commander of Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland. Dr. Gilman currently serves as the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Military and Veterans Health Institute. Below,  Dr. Gilman shares his remarks from Monday's Veterans Day Commemoration.

Good Morning. Whether you are a veteran yourself and here today to connect with others who served in the military, whether you are here to honor veterans, or whether you just happened to be passing by and curiosity got the better of you, you are welcome and we are glad you are here. Ed Cramer, retired Army Col.; chair of Veterans for Hopkins Group; senior manager, Military Relations & Field Services, Johns Hopkins Uniformed Services Family Health Plan, has already provided some of the history of Veteran’s Day in this country.

As Ed indicated the theme is “honoring all who served”. While I have a small issue with this theme that I will get to in a minute, I want to begin my brief remarks by telling you a short and true story. One of the blessings of my 35 years in uniform was the fact that I only had to spend 1 of the 35 in the Pentagon. It seemed a lot longer than a year at the time but it was only a year. The only good part of being in the Building is that on occasion you get to sit in meetings with some incredible leaders and you get some priceless insights and pearls of wisdom if you keep your ears open.  This story ironically involves then General Erik Shinseki who now heads the Department of Veterans Affairs. The irony is in the fact that Erik Shinseki is currently America’s First Veteran. General Shinseki was then the Chief of Staff of the Army. I was a long way down the food chain and I didn’t get to spend all that much with him and even when I did I was not expected to have much to say.  But there is one meeting that I will never forget and recounting it is apropos to our thoughts today. This encounter occurred sometime near the start of the long conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and the meeting included General Shinseki and the civilian Army leaders responsible for manpower. The specific topic was how to attract a large enough group of individuals with a very specific and somewhat rare skill set to join the Army. The civilian leaders, largely products of corporate America, described a number of financial incentives that could be employed to augment the number of men and women in the Army with this particular skill set. General Shinseki acknowledged that the money would be helpful but we could not make being a Soldier about the money because sooner or later the Army would ask a Soldier to do something for which all the money in the world wouldn’t be enough compensation.    

Since today is about honoring those who served, this little story involving General Shinseki appropriately begins to help us understand what it really means to serve in America’s military. The concept of military service is more complex and perhaps less intuitive than many people think. Just as General Shinseki said, military service may include almost anything asked of the service member and the asking often goes well beyond rank, pay grade, job description, and service-related benefits. Military service, in its most highly developed forms, encompasses the attributes of sacrifice, courage, duty, teamwork, honor, respect for human dignity, and last, but by no means least, unselfishness. Military service in the United States of America also encompasses the concept of justice and the notion that the strong and mighty have a moral obligation to protect those who cannot protect themselves. To be sure, it is an America-centric notion of justice but, after all, it is the Constitution of the United States that service members all swear an oath to support and defend. In its highest forms, military service should portray the best part of us as human beings or, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, display the higher angels of our nature. Military service transforms many outside the military whom it touches in the world and many of us are here today because military service transforms those of us who serve.  I am a better man, son, husband, father, grandfather, friend, doctor, employee, and citizen today because of my many years in the Army. I suspect many of you are here today because you feel much the same as I do. Those who say that service carries its own reward could not be more correct.

My problem with the theme for Veterans Day 2013 is the single letter “d” on the end of serve. The service of veterans should never be phrased in the past tense. We did not, cannot, and certainly should not suddenly stop serving this country when our days in uniform end. While I do not presume to speak for you I think that it is a true statement that all those lessons we learned about teamwork, unselfishness, dignity, respect, integrity, and honor are just as applicable here at Johns Hopkins today as they were when I put on a uniform every morning. I have some fear that these are qualities that are not so well understood in many facets of our society today and this lack of understanding relates to a number of America’s well-publicized problems. The example of our service must not be in the past either. It is fine for us to be here today proud to be veterans, to be proud of who we are and what we have done. We have done a noble thing by serving our country honorably. However, the nobility was in what we did together, not in what any one of us accomplished individually. We must regard skeptically any assignment of personal nobility in any form to our service. Our service enables and empowers us but we must be on guard less an undeserved and unhealthy sense of entitlement should develop. We simply must continue to serve. 

Now is also the time for veterans to demonstrate service-oriented leadership. I’m not talking about veterans being elected to public office or being promoted to be the CEO’s of big corporations although there is nothing wrong with either of those pursuits. This is the time for veterans to lead in their homes, their families, their schools, their communities, and their places of work – to demonstrate by their words and their actions what it means to serve – to add value to someone else’s life, to make things better, to help other people, to improve the environment, or simply to make the world a better place without a single thought of what it might be worth or what your contribution’s fair market value happens to be. Our days in uniform may be over but our days in the service of others and our nation simply must not end if America is to remain a great nation.    

These are my thoughts on this Veteran’s Day 2013. My words have been about veterans but also they have been for veterans. I am grateful to veterans for what they have done in the past, for wearing the nation’s cloth and doing her bidding. I am proud to be a member of your ranks. But I am even more grateful for those whose service never ends, those veterans who regard service as a life’s calling, not restricted by the boundaries of the time in uniform. Thank you again for being here. Thank you for listening to me these last few minutes and thank you for taking a moment to remember veterans today.

 

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Constance M. Stewart November 17, 2013 at 9:21 pm

I didn't make the ceremony this year, but will definitely make it next year. I did get to some of the restaurants for the festivities. As a member of the United States Army Reserves for 28 years and a retired veteran am proud to be a part of the veterans of these united states and I truly agree that we should not only say that we have served, but we all should still be serving. it is a remarkable feeling to say that you have worn the Army cloth and the skills and words of encouragement still lingers within all of us. Happy Veterans Day, and many, many, more to come. God Bless America!

Ret SSG Constance M. Stewart
3/318th MP, BN
Fort Meade, MD 20755

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Joan O'Connor November 15, 2013 at 11:36 am

I really enjoyed this article and could not agree more. As a Johns Hopkins Employee I feel we also "wear the uniform" and should have the same values and responsibilities to our families and our communities as our Military, Police, Fire Department and Teachers. We are here to provide a service that is not measured by financial worth but self worth and the worth of others.

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