He knew what he signed up for, and served willingly

Published 9:57 pm Monday, October 23, 2017

Referencing the controversy about what our president did or didn’t say to the family of the soldier killed in Niger, I’d like to offer my slant on the issue. 

Putting aside whether I’m a Trump man, a Clinton lover, a left-winger or a right-winger;  I find it incredulous that anyone would insinuate that a sitting president would purposely and intentionally say anything that would further wound a family that has given a loved one to the service of our nation. Indeed, if the President was trying to convey any idea remotely resembling what the media is trying to portray as his intention, it may be that it was a feeling similar to the one I’ve felt when in the presence of young men and women who even today have made and are making the commitment to serve our nation in its time of need.

I spent 30 years in the Army, and was twice deployed into combat. However, when I raised my hand and took the oath to defend my nation against all enemies, foreign and domestic, there was no active combat zone. There was no threat of terrorism lurking everywhere, to include here on our own homeland. In short, there wasn’t a hot war in progress, nor was the threat of one a very urgent matter.

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Ever since 9/11, everyone who has raised their right hand and taken that same oath has done so knowing they are going into harm’s way. They’ve stood up and taken their place in the gap while bullets are flying. The idea of going into combat hasn’t been a potential reality for them; it is the reality.

Whenever I’ve been back to West Point and seen those young cadets (and they’re younger all the time) going through the paces to prepare themselves to lead troops into combat, I’ve been compelled to compare their present-day experience with my own from some years ago. I was also preparing to lead troops in battle, but leading troops in battle was only a possibility for me. For cadets being trained and educated at all the service academies for the last 15-plus years, leading troops into battle and engaging our country’s enemies in combat has been a certainty. 

I’ve wondered if I would have accepted the appointment to West Point and committed to five years of service following graduation if I’d known absolutely that I’d actually be leading soldiers into battle and myself be put into combat shortly after completing my training. I’m not sure I’d have had the mustard for that, and I am more impressed than ever with the grit, resolve and dedication these young people exhibit in accepting the responsibilities associated with their training. 

Whenever I’ve been on active duty posts and had the privilege of visiting with soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen who are part of our great military — and I’ve learned that without exception they’ve all been down range into a combat zone, most of them multiple times — I’ve again wondered if I would have been willing to do the same had conditions been as they are today when I was their age. Would I have made the decision to serve as they have if the consequences for me had been the same as they’ve been for all our military personnel during this long period of sustained combat?

Today’s service members have each and every one stood up and taken their place alongside their brothers and sisters in arms to ensure that our freedoms and liberties are defended and protected, and have done so knowing exactly what the sacrifices and potential sacrifices are. That takes real commitment, real courage. That defines selfless service in a way no words and no other actions can.

With soldiers like Sgt. La David Johnson, that display of commitment, courage and selfless service is amplified even more, for in choosing to become one of our military’s most elite warriors, he not only accepted that he’d be placed into harm’s way, but that he’d be asked to take on the most demanding, dangerous missions necessary to ensure the defense of freedom and liberty. He knew the odds, he knew the potential consequences, he knew the risks and he still accepted the challenge and the responsibility. 

And that’s what makes Sgt. Johnson and those like him heroes to be honored and revered. Sgt. Johnson knew what his commitment meant, and went with it regardless. Few have such mettle; and the vast majority who do are wearing the uniforms of our armed services, peace officers, first responders and other such public servants. 

So just maybe what the president was trying to convey was his appreciation of Sgt. Johnson’s service, and the awe he feels knowing that Sgt. Johnson chose to serve knowing full well all the potential impacts, outcomes, and sacrifices his service might involve. Just maybe the president was expressing what we all should realize and respect; that there are among us a select few who are willing to knowingly advance toward the sounds of danger instead of retreating to safety, and that those few keep the many safe, free  and secure.

Thank God we have always had such men and women among us, and pray that we always do. As I’m sure is true with a lot of old soldiers, I am left to wonder if I would have been willing to make the choice to serve if I had faced the same conditions our soldiers are facing today. And, as perhaps with our president, I stand in awe of those who make that choice and embrace that commitment knowing what those conditions are.

I do ask God’s mercies and blessings on the souls of Sgt. Johnson and those who died alongside him, and his grace to those loved ones left behind. And may he continue to bless this country as he so richly has.

P.S.  One of our own, Chandler Rogers, will be graduating from SEAL school in just a few weeks.  He’ll take his place shoulder-to-shoulder with our nation’s elite, and he’ll be prepared to do his duty to its fullest regardless of the consequences. He’s accepted that up front, prepared himself to the highest of standards and willingly stands ready for any assigned mission. My hat’s off to Chandler, his parents and all those who love him most; and my greatest appreciation to not only him but all our fellow citizens who are serving our nation. Godspeed to Chandler in all that his service requires of him, and may God keep all our citizens serving in our armed forces safe from harm.

Ken Powell of Brookhaven is retired U.S. Army and post commander Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2618.