By Christy Howard Womack
We live in the greatest country on earth. We enjoy freedoms that we take for granted – the freedom of speech – to speak our minds without consequence, the protection that one is innocent until proven guilty, access to education for all, the ability to travel and to be able to come and go as we please, and the freedom of self-expression that are not afforded many people in other countries across the world. More than ninety nine percent of us return home every day to enjoy the safety and security of our home, to enjoy the comforts and rhythm of life.
We are able to do that because of the one half of 1% who choose to serve our country in the United States military. These men and women choose to serve our country at the expense of their own family, their own comforts of home, their own rhythm of life because they have an intense desire to belong to something larger than themselves. They want to be challenged, mentally and physically, to make a strategic difference in our world, and to serve our nation and our democracy. They want to make their families proud. They want to be proud of themselves.
After the events of September 11, people of all ages, skillsets, and backgrounds felt compelled to serve our country. They were willing to leave everything that is familiar, everything they’ve loved, to make that sacrifice and risk their very lives to take action they could be proud of in service to their nation. That patriotism has been a constant theme within the history of the United States, but perhaps no event in our lifetimes stands out more than the patriotism that swelled after September 11. We all felt a need to contribute. Even if from the comfort of our homes.
Unfortunately there is a disconnect between those of us who return home every day and the members of our military and their families. And we don’t know what we can do to bridge that gap. The challenge becomes how to communicate those feelings, those thoughts, that occur over events we haven’t experienced. Keith M. Huber, Lieutenant General, US Army (Retired) understands that challenge and he has dedicated his post military career to serving veterans and seeking ways to bridge that gap through the Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center at MTSU.
“If our purpose on earth is to learn by listening, to share experiences, to build teams that accomplish things greater than the individual, then the ability to communicate is the central requirement,” said the three-star General. Huber understands what he gave up when he signed on for a military career. “Consistency. Predictability of life. Comforts. A family life. It’s hard to understand what it feels like to not be present when your grandparents die, when your parents die, when babies are born within the family whether they were mine or not. I was here when my wife had open heart surgery and I was extremely thankful for the blessing to be with her in that time of challenge. I was proud to serve, but I was protecting the lives of U.S. families at the expense of my own.
“My family had to carry on without me. That is the sacrifice. And despite the cliché, separation does not make the heart grow fonder. The family left behind has to adapt to survive. And when the time comes for you to return home and reintegrate, the family has moved on out of necessity. They don’t know who you are, and you’re not talking because it’s impossible to describe to someone who hasn’t had those same experiences. You were robbed of the common experiences that are the fabric of your family.
“My first wife was from a military family, but I was deployed for six of the thirteen years that we were married. All those times I was absent during illnesses, birthdays, anniversaries, life’s moments – it’s impossible for those not to create feelings of resentment. I wasn’t there when they needed me. My nation needed me. It appeared I loved the Army more than her,” said Huber candidly.
It is perhaps impossible for us to understand the sacrifice that these men and women and the families who love them make. I recently had the honor of attending the retirement ceremony of LTC Joel Miller, and the significance and reverence of the ceremony was especially moving. LTC Miller lovingly and respectfully presented each member of his family – his wife, Dr. Hilary Miller, each of his children, his mother and his father with tokens to express his gratitude for their willingness to sacrifice the everyday presence that we all take for granted. Lieutenant General Keith Huber explained, “It’s not about us. It’s not about the individual. Everything we do, we do as a team. We live or die as a team. We are successful or fail as a team, but retirement ceremonies are to honor our families and the sacrifices they made that allowed us to serve.”
Huber’s daughter still cries when he puts on his uniform. “I was gone half her life. When I put on that uniform she’s thinking that I’m going to leave and she doesn’t know when I’m coming back.”
“My son is 36 with three sons of his own and we have a wonderful relationship, but I still feel guilt for not being there for him. He tells me it’s time to forgive myself, but it’s something I wrestle with,” continued Huber.
When Huber returned home he searched for something to do that felt as responsible as serving in uniform. “I wanted to make a contribution and do something honorable,” said Huber. As fate would have it, he met MTSU President Sydney McPhee and a partnership was born. McPhee afforded Huber with the space, a rare asset on a college campus, and the funding to begin the Veterans and Military Family Center to serve student veterans, and in fact, all veterans. Charlie and Hazel Daniels added their financial support in cooperation with the Journey Home Project, and Huber continues to mine for other funding sources including grants and corporate and individual donations to further the Center’s ability to assist veterans. They have recently expanded the office to include CPT Shane Smith to serve as an employer search agent to encourage employers to recruit veterans.
At LTC Miller’s retirement, Ronnie and Donna Barrett were honored for their commitment to hire veterans. Word of the Center’s commitment to serving all needs of the veteran have spread. “We get phone calls every week,” said Huber, “from non-Tennesseans who are attracted here, partially by the center, partially by the academic institution. They see that we have the mechanism in place to assist them in the transition home.”
“When I speak to the higher levels of our state government, they tell me that our biggest challenge in attracting businesses to Tennessee is providing them with a quality work force. Veterans can be the answer to the workforce issue within Tennessee. Their strength of character and discipline make them ideal employees,” said Huber.
David Bornstein writes in the New York Times, “Many Americans don’t appreciate the strain that has been placed on military families since the 9/11 terrorist attacks or how actively troops are still being deployed. The war in Afghanistan is now the longest in American history. And around the globe, more than 150,000 troops are deployed in 150 countries protecting borders, sea lanes and underwater cables; fighting terrorism; guarding against a nuclear-capable North Korea; and much more.”
The Pentagon recently released a 2016 survey of military families and found that 88% percent of military families feel the general public “does not understand sacrifices made by service members and their families.”
So as you read this article I hope that you feel the need to contribute to your country, andyou feel compelled to attempt to understand the sacrifices made by our military and their families. There are things you can do, even from the comfort of your own home.
First, spend time in the classroom of silence and consider what it would be like to miss every significant family moment in your family for just one year. Veterans aren’t asking to be treated as heroes. And certainly not as victims. But they do deserve our gratitude, and our support. Try to understand the manifestations of their military experience - their tear at a song, their intolerance towards unpatriotic acts, their potential anxiety at loud noises or crowds or confined spaces. They deserve so much more than a simple ‘thank you for your service,” they deserve our attempt to bridge that communication gap and to simply listen to their experiences and whatever parts of that they need to share, with a respect for the things that they do not need to relive.
Second, consider within your own sphere of influence if there are ways you can serve veterans. Perhaps you have influence over staffing decisions, and could encourage your own employer or company to recruit veterans first.
Third, consider donating to the Daniels Center. Come take a tour of the Center and see the breadth of services that they provide to the veterans returning home. It’s so much more than helping them take advantage of their educational opportunities.
Finally, I’ve included the words to the song Back to Yourself which gives a glimpse into one soldier’s struggle to return home. It’s a song written by Kevin Quarrels, Lauren Wilson and George Teren through the Operation Song program at MTSU. The words are powerful, but on our website at www.vipmurfreesboro.com, you can also hear the song. Sometimes we can gain an understanding through music that can transcend our own life experiences. I hope you’ll feel compelled to serve our nation by serving our veterans.
Back to Myself
By Kevin Quarrels, Lauren Wilson and George Teren
Well they teach you to fight
and how to be tough
You learn how to deal with some horrible stuff
You go 24-7 for months
Never letting your guard down
It’s hard not to hate when it’s kill or be killed
And you almost get used
to the blood being spilled
Then one day you blink
And you’re wakin’ up back in your home town
Back to your family your friends your routine
Back to your chevy your boots and your jeans
It’s all the same but nothing’s the same
When you get back from hell
And you wonder if you’ll ever
get back to yourself
You try to relax but it feels kinda strange
And people keep tellin’ you
that you’ve changed
There ain’t no way that they can relate
To what you’ve been through
You wander around like a ghost in the halls
Wishin’ that you could break
through your walls
Find a switch you could flip
That gets yourself back to the old you
Yeah I wonder if I’ll ever get back to myself