As you begin your journey in the United States Armed Forces, be it four or forty years, there’s a few things I want you to know. Some of these statements may seem insultingly banal, and others may seem so unreal that you won’t believe me until you’ve experienced them for yourself. Regardless, I feel it’s my obligation to impart our centuries of experience on to you. Because while the technologies, tactics, and politics of conflict have evolved -- those who wear the uniform have always been the same.
The United States Military, as an organization, is a machine. It was around long before you came and will be around long after you’re gone. No matter how much your superiors and society talk up your place in that machine, the simple fact is it will replace you and forget your part the moment you’re no longer useful. It doesn’t care who you were before and it doesn’t care where you’ll go after. You are only there to serve the machine.
What you will discover about the importance of your time in service is not the things you carried, the missions you went on, or the hardships you endured to serve the machine: it’s the individuals you shared these experiences with. The men and women to your left and right will be the greatest things you cherish when you finally take that uniform off, and they will be the only ones who truly value you, as you do them, because they’re the only ones who can truly understand what you did.
Not generals and politicians spitting platitudes in order to keep you wilfully indoctrinated to the mission. Not well-meaning family members who are bragging about you to their work friends back home. Not your wife. Not your kids. Not your friends. Only those you shared that part of your life with will be there for you in your memories of service -- good and bad.
And when it’s all said and done you will most certainly spend some time reflecting on everything. Society may see you as a hero who could do no wrong, which you know isn’t the case. Some will even see you as an amoral robot who couldn’t think for himself. This, you know, is also not the case. You will understand the nuances of what you were a part of. You will understand the inherent wildness, confusion, and often disorganized nature of military service. But you will also understand the intended and executed nature of goodness you were involved with.
Do not try too hard to educate those with preconceptions. Give them the bare facts as you understand them and feel free to cite personal experience. That’s all you owe them. What you owe to yourself and those you served with is far greater: the memories you all share. Keep those memories alive as you leave service and do great things in the world with the tools the military gave you: resilience, confidence, and initiative.
Do yourself proud and you will do all those who came before you and all those who will follow you proud.