Thank you for serving? No, thank YOU.

“There’s no way I would ever join the military. No way.”

I said that when I was 18 and just out of high school. I had  a few friends who had joined the Air Force, a couple who were already in basic training. I respected what they did (as much as an 18 year old me could respect anything), but I swore that it wasn’t for me.

Fast forward a year. I’m standing in front of an angry, burly man who is demanding to know why I don’t know my own name.

“Are ya stupid or somethin’?”David-Air-Force-ID

Yup. I was in San Antonio, Texas in Air Force basic training. My last name is Billings, so during first roll call when the T.I. (Training Instructor, which sounds so much nicer than Scary Yelling Moustache Man) called out “MONTANA!” and I didn’t answer right away, he proclaimed me a Grade-A idiot. After an all-night flight, crappy bus ride, no food or sleep and wondering why the hell I had previously agreed to this, I wasn’t so quick to pick up on the subtle reference. That was my intro to basic training: fun games put on by burly dudes who had to whip wimpy dudes into shape in only six weeks.

How I Got From No Way to Okay

I always wanted to be an artist. Except when I wanted to be a fireman. And a stuntman. And an actor. And a garbage man (briefly, when I was six).

So when I got accepted to a prestigious Chicago art school, I started dreaming of advertising greatness. I would usher in the next sultry Calvin Klein campaign.

The I ran out of money for school. My part-time TCBY sweeping job wasn’t exactly paying my tuition. And I already had credit card debt, besides owing my grandfather a couple grand he fronted me for a used Buick.

And I had no idea what I really wanted to do for the rest of my life, anyway. I had no direction and I was pretty lazy. Sure, I admit it. Lay-zeee.

Around that time, I heard from my Air Force friends who were already out of basic training and enjoying motorcycles, freedom, and regular jobs – not to mention collecting the GI Bill that would get them a degree after their commitment was done.

By now you can see where this was heading.

My parents were concerned. They did not want to see me join the military. I suspect they were afraid I was throwing away my creative and artistic potential on a career fighting possibly pointless conflicts. As a parent of a very talented and creative 17-year old now, I get that completely.

But I was 18 and I was stubborn. How’s that for a cliché?

Never What You Expect

In the time I signed up to the time I went to basic training, we went to war with Iraq (this was 1990). I didn’t know that would happen, but I figured it could happen any time in the next four years, so what the hell. I knew what I was agreeing to when I joined.

I didn’t know I could so willingly and successfully follow rules.

I also didn’t know how well I could learn to subvert the rules and get what I wanted by simply asking for it.

I didn’t know I could unload thousand of pounds of cargo from a C-5 Galaxy,  in a blizzard, with only minutes making the difference in a successful, no-casualty liftoff.

I also didn’t know how many lives we changed by airlifting refugees from war-torn, genocidal Bosnia. I still don’t know how much we changed. I can only imagine.

I didn’t know I could line up a cargo lifter to the world’s largest cargo plane, while the engines were running, in dense German fog… with the President of the United States waiting to land. The most pressure I had felt until then was whether I could make the midnight showing of Rocky Horror at the mall.

On Being a Veteran

So, I’m a veteran. Do I think about that every day? Nope. I don’t even have a bumper sticker. In all honesty, I did what I did for me, not for the U.S.A. I didn’t even know where Dahrahn or Bosnia were before I joined. I’m glad it all worked out for others, but I was a selfish 19-year old. To say I did it for the world would be disingenuous at best.

So I don’t need a parade. I don’t need thanks. I don’t need anything, now, really, I got so much more out of being in the military than they got from me. Or you got from me. I got unlimited job opportunities, paid education, lifelong health benefits, a VA-backed home loan, and more life experience than I can say.

And I so appreciate when you say, “Thank you” to veterans. But it’s really me who should be saying thank you, because I wouldn’t have what I have now if I hadn’t served.

I’m grateful and proud to have done it. Thank you for supporting the military, because it’s made up of people just like me.

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