Last week I finally got around to seeing “Lone Survivor.” This movie, which is based upon actual events, recounts what happened to a group of Navy SEALS on a reconnaissance mission in Afghanistan in June of 2005. While I don’t want to say that I enjoyed the movie or that it was good, it was well done, delivers a powerful message, and is definitely worth seeing. In fact, this is a film that everyone needs to see, and they need to see it for the same reason that it was hard to find enjoyable. It needs to be seen so that the incredible sacrifices made by our troops to help and protect people they don’t even know are remembered and appreciated. These men and women are willing to give anything, including their lives, to do what is right. Their selflessness and courage is something that I greatly admire and respect, but at the same time, their bravery and devotion also stirs up a feeling of guilt that I struggle to deal with.
Despite the fact that recruiters from every branch of the armed forces relentlessly called my house the moment I turned 18 (your tax dollars at work), being that I am physically disabled, I cannot join the military. While you probably wouldn’t think that this is a big deal, not being able to serve my country is something that has always bothered me. Even though I know that it is impossible to say with any level of confidence how I would feel if I was not disabled, and that it is easy to say this as I sit safe and sound in my wheelchair, I have always felt that if I was able to that I would have joined the military. I am certain I still would have gone to college, but I would have either done ROTC or joined the Reserves after graduating. Personally, I feel like this is something that I should do, and the fact that I cannot is a source of guilt for me, which is brought to the surface anytime I watch a movie like “Lone Survivor.”
I know some of you are probably confused by my feelings of guilt, especially since I have absolutely no control over the fact that I have SMA, so I will do my best to explain how and why I feel the way I do. Being a “world power,” the United States constantly has thousands of troops stationed around the globe. If our Commander and Chief decides that the military needs 30,000 more soldiers, then one way or another, it is going to happen. Since our leaders are going to get their troops, by me not serving, someone else — someone’s parent, spouse, or child — is going to have to go in my place. Why should I get to sit at home, watch Jimmy Fallon, and eat Cheetos, while they are risking their life just hoping to get home to their family in one piece? Is my life worth more than theirs? If I am going to go through life trying to spread a message of equality for disabled people (and in actuality all people), then it would be pretty hypocritical for me to value my life more than anyone else’s. It is this double standard in which the very people who I ask to treat me as an equal are the same people who have to put their lives on hold to serve in my place, that generates the guilt that I feel.
I first started to feel this way, or at least understand why I feel this way, when I was in my first semester of college at the University of Notre Dame. I would be leaving my dorm to head off to my first class of the day at 8:30a.m., and I would see some of my dorm brothers dressed in fatigues walking back to the hall. I was barely half awake and pissed off that I had to be in class at 9:00a.m., but these guys had already been up for three hours for ROTC training. Being a lowly freshman, I was still figuring out how to balance classes, work study, and having a social life, and they were doing everything that I was doing while also fulfilling several hours of ROTC requirements every week. Not only that, but they also had agreed to serving a minimum of two years in the military after graduating. These were young men my age, some still teenagers, and they had volunteered to serve their country, even though they would have a college degree from one of the top universities in the country that would allow them to do whatever they chose. Their selfless choice to serve their country and protect people they have never, and will never, meet caused me to rethink how I viewed serving in the military. It was this period of reflection that made me see what an honor it is to join the military, how much of a sacrifice our troops make, and created the sense of guilt that I feel because I cannot serve.
I don’t want to give the impression that I roll around all tortured inside because I cannot join the military. That is not at all what I am trying to say. I also don’t want to give the impression that I think that everyone should serve in the armed forces. I am saying that when I think about our troops and everything they are sacrificing so that others don’t have to, and the fact that some of these selfless men and women will not come home, I feel guilty that I cannot repay their incredible act of valor. Regardless of how you feel about world politics or the military in general, I hope you appreciate and respect the sacrifices made by our troops and do everything you can to support them and their families. Always remember that by them serving, it means that you do not have to. Take a few moments to think about everything they are giving up to defend what is right, and if you are given the opportunity, thank them for their service. This simple thank you may seem trivial compared to everything they have sacrificed, but I assure you, to these amazing men and women it will mean more than you can ever imagine.