A civilian's introduction to our armed services

This guest commentary was originally published in the print edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and online at http://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2018/jul/15/a-civilian-s-introduction-to-our-armed-

By WILLIAM M. TSUTSUI Special to the Democrat-Gazette // July 15, 2018

Last month I lost my voice from shouting "Aye, Sir!" to a tough-as-nails Marine Corps drill instructor. I also spent three days washing sand out of my hair after Army Rangers in a Chinook helicopter rescued me from a simulated hostage situation. And I squeezed myself into the hold of a "narco-submarine" where smugglers once stashed bricks of cocaine before the U.S. Coast Guard intervened.

I had all these memorable experiences, and many more, as a participant in the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference (JCOC), the flagship public outreach program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense. Along with 35 other civilian leaders (corporate CEOs, non-profit executives, and elected officials), I spent an intense and inspiring week at military installations from Virginia through the Carolinas and Georgia.

In between high-level policy briefings and demonstrations of the latest warfighting hardware, we had the rare and eye-opening opportunity to interact with people from across our armed services. All of our group came away with even deeper respect and appreciation for that passionate 1 percent of the American population who serve and sacrifice so that the rest of us can remain safe and free.

Our adventure began at the Pentagon, where Secretary of Defense James Mattis made a deep impression with his forthright assessment of the state of the world and his frank answers to our challenging questions. His message -- that the American military is second to none, that our alliances around the world remain strong, and that our nation's strategic priorities are clear-sighted -- was resolute but reassuring. He inspired trust, radiated strength, and embodied leadership. I left Washington with my faith in our national leadership renewed, confident that the highest echelon of our military establishment is in good hands.

As our group moved around the South, often flying on C-130s from Little Rock Air Force Base, we interacted daily with military top brass--generals and admirals with rows of service ribbons and stars on their shoulders. I was struck by how humble and self-reflective they seemed, how thoughtful they were about the responsibilities they bear and the ideals they uphold, and how little they resembled all those stereotypes from Hollywood movies.

I spoke with the first Asian American to rise to the rank of admiral in the Coast Guard about diversity in the armed forces and efforts to be inclusive of transgender service members. We heard from a pioneering female wing commander at Moody Air Force Base, who still trains in A-10 Warthogs every month, about the challenges of balancing family and career. I ended every day impressed by the humanity and dedication of the officers I met, confident that the command of the American military is in good hands.

At each installation, we spent time with enlisted men and women who are the backbone of our national defense. I soon learned that there are as many stories in the military as there are soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coasties. I heard of countless individual paths into uniform: young people following in the footsteps of parents, seeking structure in their lives or the way out of a bad situation, looking for maturity or direction, for ways to see the world or to realize a dream, for an opportunity to give back or be part of something bigger than themselves. I heard about the challenges and struggles of service: frequent deployments abroad; heat, bugs, and constant discomfort; boredom and terror; cheese packets in MREs.

But I also heard so many stories of uplift and growth, of courage and achievement. On every base, the sense of pride -- in personal achievements, in collective effort, and in our nation -- was intense. Immediately apparent too were the ethics of discipline, respect, and duty.

In a striking departure from civilian life, the young men and women of the military did not seem to spend their days staring into cellphone screens. Instead I encountered many individuals transformed by the high expectations and inspired by the values of the armed forces. And I am now convinced that there may be no more committed and effective educational organization in the world than the U.S. Department of Defense. Our military's investment in human capital is unparalleled: Beyond demanding physical conditioning and extensive training in technical and professional skills, I saw firsthand how our armed services provide a unique, immersive education in life, in leadership, and in character.

As I return to civilian life and look back on my experience in JCOC, I feel grateful for the service of the 2 million active and reserve members of our military. And no matter what trials we may face as a nation or what differences may divide us, I feel confident that the security of America and our way of life are in good hands.

William M. Tsutsui is president and professor of history at Hendrix College in Conway.