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A Navy SEAL friend of mine spent months hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan, searching for Osama bin Laden. When I asked what the most challenging part of his experience was, he didn’t mention snipers or insurgents.
Upon the seven seas right now, sailors are drinking water that tastes slightly of jet fuel and wearing scratchy underwear because the ship’s laundry facilities are industrial and unforgiving. No one gets enough sleep, fresh air or exercise.
“Not being able to shave for 40 days was the worst,” he said. “And you really crave a hot shower. We were freezing and on high alert in the middle of nowhere, and we never let our guard down for one second.”
Of course, discomforts and inconveniences like cold weather and body odor pale in comparison to the real dangers our troops face. As we thank them for their service this Veterans Day, we should remember that both kinds of sacrifice — big and small — are worthy of acknowledgement and appreciation.
After more than 13 years of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans have a lot of thanking to do. Thousands of returning soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines have lost friends, sustained injuries and suffered serious trauma. Thousands more have not returned at all.
According to the Navy, 103 ships are currently deployed. Upon the seven seas right now, sailors are drinking water that tastes slightly of jet fuel and wearing scratchy underwear because the ship’s laundry facilities are industrial and unforgiving. No one gets enough sleep, fresh air or exercise. “Privacy” means closing the flimsy curtain around your rack, which is only inches from the snoring bodies above, below and beside you.
A young Army officer I know recently returned from leading a platoon of engineers in Afghanistan. She and her colleagues spent months on a forward operating base that was like a dusty prison but with less entertainment and worse food. Leaving the relative safety of the base was a blessed change in routine that promised to be either monotonous or disastrous.
Complaining about little things may seem petty, and of course troops who return home in good physical and mental health understand they are lucky. This perspective, however true, doesn’t always prevent the mundane hardships from taking their toll. Imagine never quite being able to relax. Try staying sane when your boss and your boss’s boss and your subordinates see you 24/7 for month after month, at all meals, at every bedtime, and each time you come and go from the communal shower.
Everyone knows that deployments mean separation from families, but veterans know they also mean hundreds of daily reminders that home is far, far away. Each little indignity is petty and barely worth a mention, but combined they add up to an exhausting daily grind.
Somewhere in the world today, a Marine is sleeping in his boots in order to be ready at a moment’s notice. A pilot is fighting stiffness, cramped muscles, and thirst after 8 hours in a tiny cockpit with no bathroom.
Somewhere in the world today, a Marine is sleeping in his boots in order to be ready at a moment’s notice. A pilot is fighting stiffness, cramped muscles, and thirst after 8 hours in a tiny cockpit with no bathroom. Deployed troops fantasize about things we at home take for granted, like going barefoot in the shower, or wearing a favorite sweatshirt, or being alone for five minutes.
To today’s men and women in uniform: Thank you for both the big and small sacrifices. Thank you for the sleepless nights and endless days. Thank you for enduring bad smells, loud noises and relentless boredom punctuated by moments of terror. In fighting for our freedom, you give up so much of your own.
I pray those serving around the world today will come home safe and sound.
And when they do come home, may they eat all their favorite meals served on real plates; may they wear fresh clothes warm from the dryer and smelling of fabric softener; and may they enjoy sole authority over the TV remote. They have earned all of this, not to mention our gratitude.
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- On Point: Veterans Coming Home
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