Veterans Shaped By Conscription More Than Combat

This week as we celebrated Veterans Day, I recalled a midsummer morning in 2005. I had been summoned for jury duty, which seemed like no big deal. But for that and the next 27 days, I served on the Lane County grand jury.

For that month, I was conscripted — bound by law to share a room with eleven others not of my choosing. We had been entrusted by society to work together and on their behalf. It slowly dawned on me how foreign this experience had become for me.

There were times I felt trapped in the room, as if I had car-pooled to a bad party with the host’s brother. But in this instance, I knew I couldn’t just leave and start walking home.

That month of jury duty may have been my first true “no exit” situation since high school. I grew up in the Midwest before the self-esteem movement took hold. We grew up navigating requirements at every turn — two years of a foreign language, four years of physical education. Before that, piano lessons, a bowling league, Little League baseball, church league basketball, Sunday school and Cub Scouts. My mother never asked me about any of these — I was told. She believed that mandatory made the man.

From college years on, my life choices became more and more my own. I took classes I wanted, from professors I liked, to build a career I respected. Sure, there were moments where I wished I was elsewhere (like that bad party), but only for short stretches at a time.

“Jury” reconnected me with “duty” — actions taken for the sake of others.

Many of us admire those who served in the military and readily admit that they are somehow different than the rest of us. We focus on their combat experience, but I wonder if the conscription isn’t where the mettle is made — thrown together to work.

Here’s what I learned that July about America and entitlement. We don’t know we’re acting entitled, because we seldom experience anything but. We’ve never handed ourselves over to somebody else, who then has the right and responsibility to use us to accomplish their goal — today, tomorrow, and the next day. No exit.

My worst days of piano lessons, baseball practice and jury duty do not compare with a soldier’s experience, but any sacrifice of sovereignty builds character. We’re building it less.

America abolished the military draft in 1973. People liked that, so then we stopped making all high schoolers take PE. School budgets narrowed their definition of education, and piano teachers soon had fewer unwilling students. Life became easier, because fewer were forced to do anything they didn’t want to do.

Daydreaming teenagers spend fewer evenings conjugating verbs in a language they’ll never speak. Youngsters build their fine motor skills willingly with video games instead of under protest, practicing incessant C scales. Nobody goes to bad parties, or they don’t stay.

You could shrug and say, “Quel dommage,” but not if you didn’t learn the French word for pity.

We’ve carved conscription out of our lives and then we wonder why people don’t do hard things. We know we can always quit.

We quit our job rather than adapt to changing work conditions. Leaving a marriage has become easier than learning new skills. We abandon clubs, churches, cities and neighborhoods when they no longer feel like “a good fit” for us. We don’t think about those we’re leaving behind.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul last week resented that his plagiarism in speeches, articles and books had come to light. He didn’t like that. He said he might leave the Senate and return to optometry — take his ball and go home. Sarah Palin quit as Alaska’s governor and that didn’t disqualify her for higher office. These are our leaders today.

Veterans — even those who served as so-called “volunteers” — know what a commitment looks like from its darkest spot: the middle. And because they know it so well, they often return home and feel separated from the rest of us.

And we take that to mean that they’re the ones who need help. Quel dommage.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs here. His blog entries from his Grand Jury experience are collected here: http://www.dksez.com/category/grandjury/