Column: Service can go on after military service finished

Special to The Herald

Events like that at the finish line of the Boston Marathon bring me back to my sophomore geometry class. The entire 10th-grade class had been taking the PSATs on the morning of 9/11 and was thus blissfully ignorant of the catastrophic events in Washington, D.C., and Manhattan until Mrs. Wagner wheeled the bulbous Magnavox in front of the blackboard. Arms folded, she said, “There’s no other way to say this… We are at war. America is at war.”

The rest of her monologue disintegrates in my memory, static over the bombardment of images from that television That we all remember too well. Of course, there were other ways for her to have put it. Maybe it was Mrs. Wagner’s intent to jolt our group from our teenage alternate reality. She certainly awakened me. By the end of the month, recruiters from three of the four military branches to which I had submitted inquiry had responded by mail, thanking me for my interest and encouraging me to return after graduating high school.

The reaction to 9/11 by America’s youngest adults was my call to service. By the time I graduated, just six weeks prior to my enlistment, the war in Afghanistan was the better part of 4 years old and our military’s tangent into Iraq had just eclipsed one year. We saw the suffocating burden of America’s foreign policy shouldered by men and women drawn into the fray by what many of us know very personally as “the call.” For me, it was a need to join those of my generation who volunteered to carry that burden. Why should I continue my life as if that burden was any more theirs than it was mine? Could I justify to myself not putting in my time, not doing my part?

Our service, wherever it unfolded and for whatever period of time, gave us purpose, and if not for the cause at least for each other. It instantiated us in the fabric of our Union’s history and gave us membership in an historic order of our forebears. And when it ended we stood clutching discharge papers on the doorsteps of our newly foreign homes of record, ticking like the hot engine of a car that was just shut down. Recently separated veterans come stock with a sort of kinetic energy. It must be funneled into something or else, without a cause or entity to absorb that energy, we burn it off in futility.

Whatever forms we took prior to military service, most of us return imbedded with some degree of leadership. Service becomes second nature, a subconscious force shaping our character. Absent a particular cause for which we feel our service is needed, that integral part of who we have become goes unfulfilled. The void left in this case can weigh heavier than any burden of service we might bear in the uniform.

Enter Eric Greitens and The Mission Continues. Eric saw this vacuum in his cohort of veterans and founded an organization to meet that need among us to utilize our leadership and sense of service to others and, in so doing, helped to meet a myriad of needs across the spectrum of society. Through The Mission Continues Fellowship Program, Greitens and his staff challenge post-9/11 veterans to impact their communities by volunteering their services at a nonprofit organization of their choice.

It was my fellowship through The Mission Continues that reframed the essence of service in my mind. Greitens and his infectious entourage of revolutionaries showed me that my service to this country and its people didn’t end just because I had hung up my uniform, that opportunities to serve others were literally all around me. Not only was I given the chance to join in the work of Veterans Village of San Diego to address veteran homelessness, my fellowship empowered me to coordinate volunteers and materials in an effort to address a community need unrelated to veterans through a service project and thus to extend my impact across a wider segment of society.

So, when the terror in Boston unfolded and immersed my consciousness in that familiar feeling, that need to be of some service in relief to others, I knew better how to channel my energy. Though my service project, focusing on the revitalization of a much-needed community garden in a low-income area of southeast San Diego, has as much to do with the explosions on Boylston Street as Iraq had to do with 9/11, the mere activity of being of service to others does much to help soothe the sorrowful pangs within me for the people who experienced that terror in Boston.

As if some act of kindness or service to those in need could counterbalance a reprehensible evil visited on innocents, I think of the words Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from Birmingham City Jail 50 years ago: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Whatever you call it — evil, injustice, the bad — it will always exist someplace. So, too, must exist the just, the good.
I heard one person interpret the Boston explosions as a snapshot of the human condition. Amid the chaotic consequence of one’s actions intended to take lives and impose terror, we observed the instinctive actions of others running toward the explosions to relieve those in need, to do good. For your part, when the world’s ills have you itching to sprint toward the fray, assess your surroundings. There is a cause worth taking up, a people worth serving.

Listen for the cause calling you and run headlong in its direction alongside your brethren in service. Eventually the good can outweigh the bad.

Tristan Williamson is a 2004 graduate of Jasper High School. He spent four years in the Navy that included two deployments, one to the Gulf. He was recently named director of the Veterans Homeless Shelter in San Diego.

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