“A veteran is someone who wrote a blank check made payable to the United States of America for an amount up to and including their life.”
This saying has circulated in the wake of President Donald Trump’s feud with the family of Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed Oct. 4 in Niger alongside three fellow U.S. soldiers. It’s a thought that’s never squared with me, though. Whether the president believes this, for me, is immaterial. I’ve heard it said enough to know it’s part of the discourse over how America uses our military in service to our national interests.
The reality about why we signed up, and why we stayed, is materially different.
When I joined the Navy, I didn’t write any blank checks. Like countless others, I accepted a job. I did it because it was an honorable profession and paid for my college. When that obligation was met, I stayed because it was a living that provided for my family.
Eventually I tried to stop. But I couldn’t. I didn’t know how.
When I started, I never thought my life was at risk any more than someone who drives on a freeway to work, or flies a plane for a living, or works at a high-rise construction site.
I’d like to think I chose the path I did out of patriotism, that I raised my hand because I loved my country and wanted to defend our way of life. It’s not that I don’t. Or that I wouldn’t. It’s just been a long time since anyone of us had to actually defend an American’s ability to live the American way.
So when that particular reverence is paid to us, I struggle with it because, when we’re really honest, most vets would tell you what I just did.
There’s something comforting about the notion that those who made the ultimate sacrifice had an expectation that their service may be their end. Somehow, it makes us feel better about it, maybe a little less guilty. They all knew what they were getting into, after all.
The truth is that none of us did.
We signed up for our own reasons and hoped for experiences that would help shape us.
We wanted camaraderie and war stories. We wanted the glory of serving during battle and the recognition that came with it.
None of us wanted to die.
And almost none of us expected we would. But sometimes it happened, a heavy price to pay for which we all must account.
Sometimes I run to the Cabrillo Monument, out at the end of Point Loma where I live in San Diego. The route winds through Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, where thousands of veterans are buried.
There’s one marker that stands out: that of Sgt. Alejandro Dominguez, who was killed June 25, 2008, 10 weeks short of his 25th birthday.
I didn’t know him. We didn’t serve together. But this is what I’ve learned.
He awoke on his 18th birthday, Sept. 11, 2001, to see that America had been attacked. Soon after, he enlisted and made multiple deployments to Iraq. During the last, his vehicle hit a roadside bomb, killing him, Spec. Joel Taylor and Pfc. James Yohn, two soldiers junior to him whose lives he no doubt felt responsible for.
The narrative writes itself. Dominguez was born on 9/11. In an act of patriotism, he rushed out to defend his country and willingly sacrificed himself to defend our way of life. In the end, he paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. May he rest in peace.
And there’s probably truth to that. But it’s incomplete.
Dominguez did his part. He raised his hand. And served his time. But he went back for more. Because like so many, he did write that blank check. Not to America. Not to all who live in a free and open society. He wrote that check to the life of a soldier at war. He may have started for America. But he went back—because he didn’t know how not to.
In 2004, about the time Dominguez was leaving for his first deployment, I was coming home from back-to-back tours overseas. I was done, and soon left the Navy to be with my wife and start a family.
But the Navy wasn’t done with me. Less than two years later, I was recalled to active duty. And until that moment, while standing at the ramp of a C-17 bound for Iraq, I hadn’t realized that I, too, had written a blank check. I felt whole again—more so than I ever felt as a husband and father.
Perhaps that’s what Dominguez felt watching over his two junior soldiers heading out the door one last time, leaving his wife and two young children behind, never to see them again.
This life is hard to stop living. And the fallen of my generation, more times than not, fell before they had a chance to try. And too many more fell after they left, failing to find the purpose or the drive they once felt at war.
The fallen are heroes of a different type. Not because they happily wrote a blank check to all of us but because they had loyalty to one another and to the life of a service member at war. All had plans for the days after they died. They had hopes to get out alive, even if they didn’t know how.
No one signed up to die on that mission in Niger. They signed up for their own reasons. And they stayed for each other.
In his Oct. 17 column, in which he makes the case for closed societies, Bill Colley asks for “evidence” that “diversity makes us stronger.” I’d like to cite eight studies mentioned in an article I easily found by simply googling “evidence that diversity makes us stronger.” I wonder why Mr. Colley didn’t think of doing that. The first link sent me to Scientific American where I found an article written by Katherine W. Philips, a professor and senior vice-dean at Columbia Business School. The constraints of the Times-News’ letter-writing rules prevent me from listing all the studies Ms. Phillips mentions; they include ones conducted at Stanford, Harvard and Tufts. One of them, from the University of Illinois, demonstrates how a more diverse group performed better than more homogeneous groups at solving murder mysteries. Ms. Phillips asserts what ought to be obvious — that “being with similar others leads us to think we all hold the same information and share the same perspective.” Groupthink, in other words. Furthermore, Ms. Phillips writes, “when we hear dissent from someone who is different from us, it provokes more thought than when it comes from someone who looks like us.”
This could be Mr. Colley’s problem. He only listens to people like him. But there might be hope for him after all. Ms. Phillips also offers this brilliant observation: “Diversity is not only about bringing different perspectives to the table. Simply adding social diversity to a group makes people believe that differences of perspective might exist among them and that belief makes people change their behavior.” Hmmn. Does anyone think Mr. Colley might one day take off his blinders? Hope springs eternal.
Last week, I ran through some of the reasons businessman Tommy Ahlquist, one of three major candidates for the Republican nomination for Idaho governor, might come in third when the votes are cast. They’re pretty good reasons.
But so fluid is this race that those points tell only part of the story. Ahlquist, Lt. Gov. Brad Little and Rep. Raul Labrador each plausibly could come in first, second, or third. Let’s look now at why Ahlquist might win—reasons that shed light on some important factors in the race.
If you have three strong candidates (we’ll assume that none of them drastically flame out), little more than a third of the total vote may be needed to win. Move on to the probability (not certain but likely) that the 2018 primary may be a relatively low-turnout event.
Right now, Little and Labrador have clear and substantial bases of support—to over-simplify, many well-established organization and rank-and-file Republicans for Little, and many of the activist and erstwhile Tea Party backers for Labrador.
But large segments, some overlapping, remain unaccounted for.
The Latter-day Saint or Mormon vote, accounting for maybe half of the Republican primary vote, often sticks mostly together in races like this, and its inclinations are not clear yet. It probably will not back Little, although it might: Support for the establishment might have appeal. Labrador, as a brother in the faith, would have some appeal too. But he has several issues: He’s based over in the first district, his mode is more that of a firebrand (not a match for Mormon sensibilities) and he’s been a critic of the Idaho National Laboratory, a problem for voters in the Upper Snake.
Ahlquist, also LDS by faith, is another matter. He is a businessman, which suits well, and his language seems a match for the Mormon community. His relatively recent arrival in Idaho wouldn’t hurt him in the eastern Idaho LDS community either, because he has background in the Salt Lake City area—the second capital for many people in that area. (I may have overstated that and understated his Idaho background last week; no doubt the subject will continue to be discussed.) Quite a few Mormons in the east have been known to take cues from Idaho Falls businessman Frank Vandersloot, Idaho’s wealthiest resident. Vandersloot hasn’t stated a clear preference in the primary yet, and maybe he won’t. But it wouldn’t be hard at all to see him give the nod to Ahlquist. Backing from Utahn Mitt Romney doesn’t hurt either.
The second important up-for-grabs constituency is the strongly pro-Donald Trump contingent. Surely Labrador will appeal to a significant part of it. But much of the Trump appeal has to do with the perception of outsider status, and Labrador—while a rebel of sorts within the U.S. House—will nonetheless have been a member of the despised Congress for eight years when these voters vote. Ahlquist can run more obviously and simply as an outsider. And parts of his advertising and rhetoric sound clearly designed to appeal to these voters. Smart strategy.
Third, in parts of the central Boise area, Ahlquist may have pull simply because he actually has been a successful developer there, and on that basis if nothing else has impressed plenty of people.
There’s also the factor of too much familiarity. Enthusiasm matters enormously in low-turnout primaries, and newcomers have an easier time generating it than veteran candidates (see: many of our recent presidential elections). Ahlquist has an advantage if he can get himself well enough known, which he is in the process of doing.
All this easily could add up to enough votes to win a seriously contested primary.
You could run comparable scenarios for the other two candidates as well (if you’re a supporter of one of them, you may have done that while reading this). Point is: This is a seriously competitive race that right now could go any which way.