The day before Veteran’s day is the Marine Corps’ birthday, and this year I was lucky enough to score an invite to the MCB Quantico ball. As the evening began, we had cocktails and chit-chatted with the people at our table before moving on to more somber and reflective matters. We watched a recorded address from the Commandant and I choked back tears that always come too easily at the mention of the things I hold dear and the warfighters who defend them. Dinner came just in time, and with the help of good friends, dress blues, whiskey and a tolerant plus 1, it was a fabulous evening.
I was introduced to lots of people that night. When the Colonel presented me to someone, he would say, “This is Emily. She’s a cellist and the Marine Corps’ biggest fan.” Each time I got a giggle out of it, and felt happy to know that my unwavering support occasionally hits its target. Sometimes people ask me what the deal is with my apparent infatuation with the wheels of war and the glamour of the military. It’s been hard to articulate to some, in part because I know they see the military (and our country) in a very different light. I’ve found myself trying to triangulate a reasonable explanation that will be easily digestible, but have had mixed success in that effort.
On the way home from the ball, P and I were talking about our relationship with the military, and the Marines specifically. He’s from around here, and grew up with high-ranking Marines and their children, some of whom joined the Corps themselves. His brother is an Army man. As for me, I knew members of the other branches, with family and friends in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard. I was raised with a respect for and curiosity about what life in the military looked like, especially during the strained peacetime of the Cold War. The Marines came into focus for me just after 9/11, when my student’s husband, a Marine officer, was brought in for specialized training and sent to Afghanistan. He was killed within a few weeks of his deployment.
Deaths as a result of military campaigns have always been real to me, with no sensible emotional barrier to prevent me from taking each one personally. Part of being so hyper-sensitive is the ability to empathize, sometimes inconveniently, with the loss of others’ loved ones. I was a wreck after 9/11, and some would ask, “Why are you crying? Did you lose someone?” and my response was that I had lost all of them. They were all my people, and I still grieve for them.
This grief led me to question, as many of us did, what the hell I was doing with my life. I was sickened to see that my priorities had become maintaining an image of success and small-time fame as a session musician in Los Angeles. Name dropping to gain advantage. Goals that read in dollar signs as opposed to substance. What was it worth? What kind of person was I? Where was the greater good being served in my work? I felt like such a farce with my ridiculous fiddle. It was the same way I felt after playing in the pediatric oncology ward at City of Hope. Here I was, a jackass minstrel playing Christmas carols and some of these kids were going to die for absolutely no good reason. I felt helpless, useless.
To join the armed forces would have been silly at that point- I was too old and they’d have to spend more money than it was worth to train me to be remotely productive. After a brief flirtation with the intelligence side of things, I decided to take matters into my own hands, even if it started small. I would wage a campaign to positively affect the lives of as many members of our military as possible. I would buy coffee, pick up bar tabs, and thank them for serving. I would be a pen pal. I would give on-base lessons for cheap or free if I could afford it. I would donate money and time to organizations benefiting soldiers and veterans. I would pray for peace. Later, I would apply my newfound curiosity about neuroscience to see how it might be possible to ease the pain of veterans returning with invisible wounds.
And as I did these things, I got to know the kind of people that serve our country. Know that this is not the part of the blog where a bald eagle soars triumphantly overhead and we see a flag superimposed over a picture of Mt. Suribachi. Some of these guys are actually complete boneheads. Some others are uncompromising in their valor. Some joined up because they felt like they had no other option. Some joined because that’s what the men in their families do. Some never thought they’d be deployed and just wanted free tuition and a good looking resume. The people who serve in the military are not saints.
They’re humans. Just like you and me. Except for one reason or another, they ended up serving us and our extravagant experiment of a nation in very complicated times, while most get to muse over academic pursuits or fret about what to delete on TiVo or how much fiber we need in our diet to lose those last 5 pounds. It is the fact that they are ordinary -and not composed of some magical substrate to make the load of service easier to shoulder- that makes them worthy of deference and respect. Their service affords the rest of us the luxury to pursue just about anything we damn well please. And we should enjoy it, because that’s what’s at stake during every conflict our forces are asked to join in. Is it simple? Never. Is it perfect? Far from it. Remember, this is a post about the people who fight, not the ones who send them into harm’s way.
I am lucky to find myself in the company of members of our military on a nearly daily basis. My aim is to spend the rest of my life repaying the extraordinary work and sacrifice these ordinary people have made on our behalf. It seems like the least I could do.
I am, as some say, their biggest fan. And that’s the deal.