What service means

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Charles R. Owen
  • 755 Operations Support Squadron, commander
During my recent deployment to Afghanistan, the men and women of the 41st Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron flew an American flag on a combat mission in honor of the teachers and staff at my daughter's elementary school. After we returned from Afghanistan, the school had the flag framed for display and launched an instructional unit on patriotism. This unit involved learning about the flag, studying the Pledge of Allegiance and learning patriotic songs. Additionally, the principal asked if I would bring a few Airmen to meet the children and talk to them about service to our country. Although I immediately enthusiastically consented, I was struck a few days later by just how difficult it is to explain what "service" means in terms that a kindergarten child can understand. 

We speak of service a great deal in the Air Force. Service is one of the three pillars of our Core Values. But really, what does it mean to "serve?" Why do we leave our families and loved ones behind to put ourselves in harm's way for months at a time? It certainly isn't for the money. I dare say that every Airman reading this article could reap far greater financial rewards in the private sector than in the military. It might be the allure of adventure, but there are plenty of opportunities for adventure that don't incur the sacrifices so many of us make. 

When I was junior at Northwestern University, I had the privilege of taking a sociology class from the renowned military sociologist, Charles Moskos. He had made the military his focus of study from the mid-1960's through the early 2000's, and he concluded that military service was a profession, a "calling" if you will, not unlike that of medical professionals or even clergy. He advocated that the profession of arms is different from other careers because of the "service" aspect. That "service" being to a higher cause than oneself, a motivation greater than monetary reward. 

I believe Dr. Moskos had it right, but how do you explain such an abstraction to a five-year old? Then it dawned on me. In order to serve, one must deeply care. We may say we serve our country, but really we mean we serve the citizens of our country...we are actually expressing that we deeply, unselfishly care about the people of the United States. We care so much that we are willing to endure hardships and even make the ultimate sacrifice on their behalf. And that is how I explained my service in the Air Force to the children of Canyon View Elementary School. I explained to them that there were literally thousands of young men and women in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world that were enduring hardship, because they cared about each and every one them, and that we do what we do because we want to keep them safe from harm. 

At the end of my short address, the children sang Woody Guthrie's famous tune "This land is your land" and were dismissed back to their classes. I turned to thank the principal for inviting me and found a crowd of children rushing my way. The first one to reach me threw her arms around my waist and gave me a big hug. She also hugged the Airmen who accompanied me. For the next fifteen minutes, the children of Canyon View gave us the warmest thanks for our service that we'd ever experienced. The thanks the children expressed to us that afternoon is really a thanks expressed to all of us in uniform. They understand and appreciate that you serve because you care about them, that you care about all Americans. It's one of the things that set you apart...a warrior in the service of your country.