Just one way to serve your country?

By Vicki Kline

Let me be clear: I do not believe that anyone has a monopoly on the proper way to serve. And yet, I recently found myself confronted by a former Marine, who challenged my ideas of service.

This Marine, whom I have known since I was a child, spewed sardonically at me over lunch: “…and I gave 8 years of my life for you, for your sisters, for your family…yeah…you’re welcome.”

I will not begrudge this Marine’s service to the ideals to which he ascribed so much importance that he signed up for active duty in the military. That takes a lot of courage, and a deeply rooted commitment to the belief that the military is the way that courageous men and women should serve their country. I accept that.

What I will not accept, however, is the insistence that military service can claim the monopoly on “serving one’s country.” I am deeply disturbed by the misled arrogance in that idea, and the bitter irony that in “fighting to protect our way of life” we are inherently opposed to one another, as the people I admire most in the world devote their service to transforming “our way of life” into something better, and deeper. We have to insist that in order to “sacrifice one’s life for one’s country,” that one does not need to learn to kill and do so efficiently. In fact, I am humbled to know countless people who have devoted their entire lives to non-violent service to this country (and many other countries, in fact), who are ready to “sacrifice their lives” in order to attain the ideals that so profoundly move them. Many live every day of their lives serving and many have spent their last breaths serving.

But rather than a prideful touting of this willingness to sacrifice, those who I see serving their country in this manner do so humbly and without a demand for recognition and appreciation. They serve because they feel that deep-down nudging – call it God, call it conscience, call it some recognition of human connectedness – that moves them toward service of other human beings. This spirit of service does not end after a tour of duty ends; in big and small ways, these people continue to serve throughout their entire lives.

As this Marine friend threw daggers of accusation at me about my support for government strategies that aim to help the least among us, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was, exactly, that he fought to defend during his time in the Marines. Are we training our military to serve a country that routinely ignores large groups of its citizens, that pushes people who are challenging or different to society’s margins? For the people who have formed my own consciousness, “our way of life” has done nothing to improve their lot. Should we not be training a military — that is, a band of young, eager men and women who believe in the ultimate power of their service to their country — to use its might to counter the forces of injustice that continue to oppress our most vulnerable citizens?

The addicts, criminals, and sick, tortured souls who have comprised a large portion of my social circle over the last several years are forever inscribed into my mental picture of who I fight for, who I serve. To continually serve street people regardless of the pain and insanity that make up the dailiness of the service is to do no less than sacrifice one’s life for one’s countrymen. To the same degree that our nation shows its pride in the military servicemen and women who give of themselves in that way, with parades and car magnets and heroes’ appreciation, we need to celebrate the people who serve day after day, in times of war and peace, hunger and plentitude, popularity and disgrace. To list the ways in which people serve throughout their lives would be an impossible endeavor – the forms of service of ordinary people are too diverse, too creative to squeeze them into any category.

But let us be clear: these people, humbly giving of themselves in season and out, offering their lives as an example of the world they long to create – these people are doing no less than the sacrificial offer of laying down one’s life for one’s country. If we are to honor our nation’s heroes, if we’re to hold up examples of selfless individuals who faced adversity with courage and grace, we must expand the definition of “service to one’s country” beyond the narrow vision of military service.

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3 Comments »

  1. rachael said

    Amen. And we miss you here. Let’s have an update on what you’re doing in Baltimore!

  2. Barbara Jennings said

    Vickie, What an excellent essay! There ARE many ways of serving….and it is good to question “our way of life.” I wonder if this Marine thinks our way of life is ideal beyond all questions…..

  3. Jeanne Christensen said

    I, too, say “Amen” — and in this Easter season, “Alleluia!” Thank God there are so many of us who also serve our country in the way which you so ably describe. I find great hope — and courage too — in knowing that there are so many of us serving those most in need.

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