“Two, no drop acknowledged!”
The 2010 mission was tasked as a C-130 two-ship, nighttime airdrop in south-central Afghanistan. An Army unit urgently needed supplies, and with a lack of truck routes and nearby treacherous mountainous terrain, our Air Force airlift squadron became their best shot for a quick resupply.
However, this particular mission was not routine. The troops on the ground were “in contact” with enemy forces, and the originally-briefed drop zone was now behind enemy lines. As a result of delayed situational notification, we were unable to reprogram our mission computer with the new drop zone data in time for the first pass. Fortunately, thanks to quick calculations and great teamwork between both aircrews, the second pass went smoothly, and our Army brothers and sisters received the critically-needed supplies.
The end-of-year holidays are typically a time when military personnel, like Americans everywhere, gather with family, friends and colleagues to “take a breather” and enjoy each other’s company. Whenever I am asked for “war stories” during the holidays, I may tell this particular story or several like it from more than 200 flying missions over Iraq and Afghanistan.
When talking with civilians, these requests for wartime stories are sometimes accompanied by the question, “Why do you serve?” This question is contemplated by all military members at some point during our careers. In fact, many members’ answers transform over time. For instance, I originally joined the Air Force for the academic rigor and challenges presented by the U.S. Air Force Academy. However, as I approach the 20-year career mark, the real question becomes, “Why do you continue to serve?” Upon recent reflection, my answer is a three-part response.
First and foremost, I serve for the opportunity to lead the incredibly talented airmen who comprise the finest Air Force in the world. As a commander, I lead my airmen and their families, safeguard their well-being, and ensure the readiness of our unit to execute the orders of the president, secretary of Defense, and officers above me.
As an instructor pilot, I train my fellow pilots and loadmasters to safely employ multi-million-dollar aircraft and effectively accomplish airlift and airdrop missions in all environments. As an officer-mentor, I develop the future leaders of the Air Force, ensuring the “long blue line” for years to come. My greatest calling is to serve my fellow airmen.
Second, I serve to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution and my fellow citizens. Nearly two-and-a-half centuries ago, our forefathers created the “great American experiment” that continues today. This republic, as outlined in our Founding documents, represents the single-greatest opportunity for liberty mankind has ever known.
However, this republic is only as sustainable as the next person who raises their hand and volunteers to give their life, if necessary, in its defense. I still get goosebumps listening to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” as no song from this generation better expresses the love and devotion Americans feel for our way of life.
Finally, I serve to safeguard the United States itself. God has gifted Americans with some of the most beautiful territory on the planet. I cannot adequately describe the overwhelming awe at viewing the Grand Canyon for the first time; the sense of wonder while staring at the Grand Tetons; the goosebumps when gazing at a sea of giant redwoods; the astonishment at Denali after landing on a nearby glacier; or the throat lump that develops while viewing a heard of stampeding bison in the heart of Yellowstone. These treasures and many, many more are available to each of us as U.S. citizens.
Just as military members must contemplate and continuously re-evaluate their individual reasons for serving, as U.S. citizens, we can personally consider our capabilities and opportunities to serve our great nation. Simple acts such as internalizing the Pledge of Allegiance, becoming an informed voter, understanding civics, honoring the flag, memorizing the national anthem, studying our Founding documents, and obeying the law form the basis for U.S. citizenship.
Servant-citizens also have a strong desire to provide for themselves and promote the ability of fellow citizens to do likewise. Speaking at the New York Chamber of Commerce banquet in 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt said, “The first requisite of a good citizen in this Republic of ours is that he shall be able and willing to pull his weight; that he shall not be a mere passenger, but shall do his share in the work that each generation of us finds ready to hand; and, furthermore, that in doing his work he shall sow, not only the capacity for sturdy self-help, but also self-respecting regard for the rights of others.”
Servant-citizens actively seek both formal and informal opportunities to serve, whether at the individual, community, state or federal level. For example, during the recent pandemic-stricken election cycle, a new generation of younger poll-workers stepped forward to ensure the credibility of our election process, even as the health status of many in our older generations was too “high risk” to serve. Service can take many different forms; just contemplating “How can I serve?” is the all-important first step.
This has been a year unlike any other for our nation. Significant health, economic, and policy challenges persist. Negativity permeates our political discourse and media. Despite these difficulties, as we enter into this holiday season and individually consider all for which we are grateful, I find my reasons for serving in the U.S. military double as my baseline for gratitude. U.S. citizens, by birth or naturalization, can also claim an instant baseline for gratitude: Thanks to our servant-citizens, our God-given unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are alive and well, something for which we can all be deeply appreciative.
Because we truly do live in America the Beautiful.
• Denny R. Davies, a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, is a national security affairs fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. A former C-130 squadron commander, he has deployed six times in support of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force or the U.S. government.