Curtis Flood: A Navy Lieutenant's Reflections on Veterans Day, 2009

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[Curtis Flood is a U.S. Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade, just back from a year in Iraq. He gave this talk on Veteran's Day to his prep school alma mater, St. George's School in Newport, Rhode Island.]

Today we are gathered together to celebrate Veteran’s Day, an American tradition for the last 90 years.  During my years at St. George’s, Veteran’s Day was a celebration of past wars and those military veterans who served during them. In those days, there were no large scale wars being fought, so the only veterans we knew were the old guys who served in Vietnam, or the really really old guys who served during the Korean War.  Some of those veterans, whose names are on the schoolhouse walls right outside those doors, paid the ultimate price for serving their country. 

Before we go any further, I would like to get a quick show of hands:

-Please raise your hand if you have a relative that served in World War II or Korea. [PAUSE] Ok, that looks like about 100.

-How many people have a relative that served in Korea or Vietnam. [PAUSE] Ok, about 50.

-Finally, how many people have a relative that is serving today in the United States Military? [PAUSE] Ok, just a couple.

The reason I ask is because when I was at St. George’s it seemed like those veterans were history book characters… I knew some of them but they were ancient and their wars were decades ago in distant lands.   Today, Veteran’s Day 2009, the world has changed; for better or for worse, America is engaged in two regional wars and a global war on terrorism.  There are veterans who are the same age as the Senior class, who are fighting and dying on the battlefield RIGHT NOW.  I had the privilege of serving next to some of these 18 and 19 year old men and women this past year in Iraq. 

I was mobilized by the US Navy and sent to northern Iraq at this time last year.  Now you are probably asking yourself… “why would a Navy officer get sent to the dry desert of  Northern Iraq?” Was I some sort of vagrant that the Navy wanted to get rid of? The answer is that the Navy has over 15,000 personnel on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan today, we are called the “Sand box sailors” or more simply the “NARMY”.  Of course, before they shipped me off, I was given a great hair cut, given some of the nicest polyester uniforms money can buy, and given combat training.  But in all seriousness, what at first appeared to be a scary tour of duty in a war zone, turned into the most defining period of my life

I was the officer in charge of an intelligence unit that consisted of 12 soldiers, airmen and sailors.  We worked 14-16 hour days for eight straight months with no weekends or holidays off.  The unit was able to maintain that kind of focus and endurance because we were gaining intelligence that put insurgents and terrorists behind bars or in the ground.  There is no reward, cash prize or jackpot on EARTH better than catching a terrorist or insurgent who is attempting to kill you or your fellow American soldiers.  Even better, once you catch them, then you get to talk to them in a prison cell of your choosing.  …Now, that may seem a little crude and you may think I am a little bloodthirsty, but let me assure you that when your unit is targeted for a rocket or suicide attack, you want nothing more than to neutralize that threat. 

The tour was both mentally and physically exhausting: I have never cried so hard or laughed so loud.  There were funny moments along the way, even during deadly serious situations.  I will never forget being onboard a helicopter and seeing a 200 pound sergeant frantically searching for a can to RELIEVE himself in.  Needless to say he did not find a can, but he did find an empty pair of boots… which he kindly returned to the owner upon landing. 

I stand before you today as a veteran, which is a dwindling section of society as the generation who served in World War II and Korea is shrinking.  Even more drastic is the decline in the number of St. George’s alumni who find their calling in the military. When America was in need of help during the First World War, 80 PERCENT of St. George’s alumni answered the call and went to war.  During that time the St. George’s student body formed a School Battalion, wore military uniforms and conducted live fire combat training right here on campus.  Just imagine Mr. Bullock being your math teacher and your drill sergeant! A similar percentage of alumni were involved in World War II and Korea. What those alumni have gained by serving in a war is unique and will be with them for the rest of their lives.  Perhaps most importantly, during those times of war the United States gained the services of a fit, well rounded, and highly educated St. George’s graduate.  If you are here as a St. George’s student, it is highly likely that you and your family have benefited greatly from the freedom and opportunities that exist here in America, but it is NOW that America that is in need of help. 

I am not encouraging you to run down to the local recruiter this afternoon… you need to graduate from St. George’s and get your college degree.  But when the time comes for you to graduate college and you see your classmates headed off to the cubicle farm, remember just four words:  SERVICE TO YOUR COUNTRY.  The military has men and women serving not only as soldiers, sailors and marines, but also as doctors, lawyers, foreign linguists, accountants and policemen. Some of you cannot join the military: you have health problems, or you don’t like the hair cuts or you just can’t stand wearing these snazzy polyester uniforms.  BUT THAT DOES NOT RELIEVE YOU OF YOUR DUTY TO THIS COUNTRY.  You can serve your country as an agent with an Intelligence Agency, or as a Foreign Service Officer with the State Department, or as a teacher in Harlem, or even as a member of the Peace Corps.  All of those positions will help America educate her youth, represent her interests abroad or gain critical intelligence on foreign adversaries.  If you decide to take this challenge and choose one of these career paths, I can guarantee that you will cherish the time you spend serving your country.  In fifty years when you are looking back on a long career, you will not recall the millions of emails you sent during thirty years of service in a cubicle farm, but you will recall the time you helped rolled up a terrorist cell, or the time you convinced a foreign official to spy for the United States, or the time you helped villagers recover from an tsunami.  There are many ways to serve your country, but sitting on the sidelines and playing it safe is NOT one of them.  The choice is yours, choose wisely. 

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