The Angry Staff Officer

Guest Post: The Growing Emptiness of Service


By David Dixon

I began my commitment to the service of the United States in 1999, when I showed up at West Point as a fresh-faced new cadet, deeply conservative, religious, and full of a desire to be a patriot and to serve my country.  In the almost twenty years between then and now, much has changed.

I left my religion alongside the Tigris in the blood and sweat and shell casings of my first tour in Iraq.   My conservatism died more slowly and gradually in the face of life experience and widening my sources of information, but die it did.  What did not die was my desire to serve the country, even as I came to believe we’d made serious mistakes both overseas and at home.  That, perhaps alone among the defining values I came into service with, remained up to the present day and sustained my service across active duty and into the reserve component.

Or at least it did.

But now?  In the face of dead elementary school kids at Newtown and dead high-schoolers at Parkland and dead college students at Virginia Tech and dead concert-goers in Las Vegas and dead worshipers at Sutherland Springs and dead people watching football in Plano?  In the face of young Trayvon Martin, shot dead in his own neighborhood?  In the face of so many mass shootings that I can’t remember them all?  In the face of so many dead students, I get the details between how many got shot at which school in which state confused?  In the face of shooter after shooter after shooter, of young white men with delusions of grandeur, deeply held grudges about race and women, power fantasies—or some combination of the three?

In the face of all that, my service seems increasingly empty.

As I look at the videos of blood and bodies and the listen to the soundtrack of screams and gunshots and anguished families, it all looks so familiar.  It looks like the places I spent my twenties in overseas, shooting and fighting and calling in MEDEVACs for dying soldiers and wounded civilians.  It looks like “over there,” when the whole point of being “over there” was so that it wouldn’t happen over here.  But happen it does.

And it happens again and again and again.

The years I spent away from my family seem wasted.  The blood we spilled—ours and theirs—seems all for nought.  I was one of America’s youth at war, leading still more of America’s youth in the same pursuit.  Every day I looked those young men in the eye and told them what we had to do, and not only what we had to do, but why.  We did it for our fellow soldiers, because it was our duty, because no one else would, because our country needed us to do it.  I never said it because it didn’t need to be said—because we’d heard the politicians and generals say it enough—but at some level, we did it “to keep our country safe” and so that our children might grow up in a safer, better world than we did.

But now my son’s elementary school sends out emails reassuring my wife and I that they are increasing their security measures and scheduling more lockdown and active-shooter drills on top of the ones they already do.   My daughter’s preschool explains the measures they use to restrict unauthorized access to classrooms, and practices evacuation drills.  A few days ago, my wife wanted to watch some Olympic coverage, so she turned on the television while she cooked dinner.  Losing track of time, she heard sobs from the living room and raced in to find my nine-year old son, his eyes wide in horror and tears streaming down his face.

The news was on.

If this is the “better” world my soldiers and I paid for with American and Iraqi and Afghan blood, we got cheated.  If this is the “safer” country we tried to create for our children, we failed.  If this horror at home is what over a trillion dollars of “defense” spending bought us, it’s indefensible.

If this is what I served to help create and sustain, it seems a terrible, terrible waste.

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About the Author: David Dixon is a combat veteran who has served in the U.S. Army in both the active and reserve components.  He can be found on Twitter @DixonDaver.

About the Editor: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.

Cover photo: On Jan. 12, 2012, a call was passed over the radios to a medical evacuation crew to rescue a 3-year-old Afghan girl who had suffered from a gunshot wound and shrapnel to the back. Pictured above, Soldiers transport a trauma victim to a U.S. Army medical helicopter in Tarmiyah, Iraq, Sept. 30, 2007. (Photo Credit: Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Summer M. Anderson)