“A veteran is someone who wrote a blank check made payable to the United States of America for an amount up to and including their life.”
This saying has circulated in the wake of President Trump’s feud with the family of Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed Oct. 4 in Niger alongside three fellow U.S. soldiers. It’s a thought that’s never squared with me though. Whether the president believes this, for me, is immaterial. I’ve heard it said enough to know it’s part of the discourse over how America uses our military in service to our national interests.
The reality about why we signed up, and why we stayed, is materially different.
When I joined the Navy, I didn’t write any blank checks. Like countless others, I accepted a job. I did it because it was an honorable profession and paid for my college. When that obligation was met, I stayed because it was a living that provided for my family.
Eventually I tried to stop. But I couldn’t. I didn’t know how.
When I started, I never thought my life was at risk any more than someone who drives on a freeway to work, or flies a plane for a living, or works at a high-rise construction site.
I’d like to think I chose the path I did out of patriotism, that I raised my hand because I loved my country and wanted to defend our way of life. It’s not that I don’t. Or that I wouldn’t. It’s just been a long time since anyone of us had to actually defend an American’s ability to live the American way.
So when that particular reverence is paid to us, I struggle with it because, when we’re really honest, most vets would tell you what I just did.
There’s something comforting about the notion that those who made the ultimate sacrifice had an expectation that their service may be their end. Somehow, it makes us feel better about it, maybe a little less guilty. They all knew what they were getting into, after all.
The truth is that none of us did.
We signed up for our own reasons and hoped for experiences that would help shape us.
We wanted camaraderie and war stories. We wanted the glory of serving during battle and the recognition that came with it.
None of us wanted to die.
And almost none of us expected we would. But sometimes it happened, a heavy price to pay for which we all must account.
Sometimes I run to the Cabrillo Monument, out at the end of Point Loma where I live in San Diego. The route winds through Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, where thousands of veterans are buried.
There’s one marker that stands out: that of Sgt. Alejandro Dominguez, who was killed June 25, 2008, 10 weeks short of his 25th birthday.
I didn’t know him. We didn’t serve together. But this is what I’ve learned.
He awoke on his 18th birthday, Sept. 11, 2001, to see that America had been attacked. Soon after, he enlisted and made multiple deployments to Iraq. During the last, his vehicle hit a roadside bomb, killing him, Spec. Joel Taylor and Pfc. James Yohn, two soldiers junior to him whose lives he no doubt felt responsible for.
The narrative writes itself. Dominguez was born on 9/11. In an act of patriotism, he rushed out to defend his country and willingly sacrificed himself to defend our way of life. In the end, he paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. May he rest in peace.
And there’s probably truth to that. But it’s incomplete.
Dominguez did his part. He raised his hand. And served his time. But he went back for more. Because like so many, he did write that blank check. Not to America. Not to all who live in a free and open society. He wrote that check to the life of a soldier at war. He may have started for America. But he went back — because he didn’t know how not to.
In 2004, about the time Dominguez was leaving for his first deployment, I was coming home from back-to-back tours overseas. I was done, and soon left the Navy to be with my wife and start a family.
But the Navy wasn’t done with me. Less than two years later, I was recalled to active duty. And until that moment, while standing at the ramp of a C-17 bound for Iraq, I hadn’t realized that I, too, had written a blank check. I felt whole again — more so than I ever felt as a husband and father.
Perhaps that’s what Dominguez felt watching over his two junior soldiers heading out the door one last time, leaving his wife and two young children behind, never to see them again.
This life is hard to stop living. And the fallen of my generation, more times than not, fell before they had a chance to try. And too many more fell after they left, failing to find the purpose or the drive they once felt at war.
The fallen are heroes of a different type. Not because they happily wrote a blank check to all of us but because they had loyalty to one another and to the life of a service member at war. All had plans for the days after they died. They had hopes to get out alive, even if they didn’t know how.
No one signed up to die on that mission in Niger. They signed up for their own reasons. And they stayed for each other.
Hughes is a Naval Academy graduate, and a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. He lives in San Diego.
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