I signed up for West Point right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In that moment, as a young 16-year old seeing the horrifying images on TV, joining the Army seemed like the best and most right thing I could do.
I’d never been to West Point or even talked to anybody who was in the Army. The only thing I knew was what I’d seen in movies and read in History class.
Four years at West Point was the hardest thing I’d ever done, and I cried with pure joy on graduation day. I spent a year in Army schools after graduation, honing my leadership skills and learning more about military operations.
I arrived to my first duty station, Fort Hood, TX, in the spring of 2007, and by April of 2008, I was heading to Iraq with my unit. After graduating West Point I was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, and once I arrived to my unit, I was assigned as a Platoon Leader and given the responsibility of leading nearly 30 soldiers. I was 23 at the time, and most of the soldiers I was leading were no more than 20 years old. A few of the old timers in my platoon were in their mid 20s or approaching 30.
Life is such a fragile thing, and death is a very real reality. You don’t think too much about death when you’re 23. Life seems endless and full of possibilities. But going to war has a way of making you acutely aware of just how fragile and short life is. As combat engineers, our job was to go out and look for Improvised Explosive Devices. My platoon and I had the 9 pm to 4 am time slot — every night we’d get our vehicles and equipment ready to head out on mission. I’d gather all my soldiers together, give them the mission briefing, and we’d jump in our up-armored vehicles. I always got the same uneasy feeling in my stomach every time we headed outside of the protective walls of the base. What was that feeling? There was the weight I felt of being responsible for the lives of my soldiers. The awareness I was only 23 years old and far too young to die. And the reality that this was no longer a training exercise, but real life. The combination of those feelings was what I felt every time.
Before each mission, I said a prayer for safety, and once back on base, a prayer of thanks that we’d all made it back. That we had survived to see another day.
Coming home from Iraq made be realize how precious life is, and that each and every day is a gift. It made me thankful for the little things, like waking up each morning with air in my lungs, feeling the ocean breeze on my face, catching a sunrise, going on adventures with my family, the laughter of friends around a dinner table. I’m grateful for each new day and the perspective I have towards this beautiful life we get to live.
As I sit here typing with the sun on my back and the sound of leaves rustling in the wind, I’m so full of gratitude. Here’s to approaching each and every day that way.
A version of this post was previously published on Medium and is republished here with permission from the author.
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