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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Opportunities

Receiving the Medal of Honor last fall has created opportunities for me that I would have never imagined.  I've gotten to travel all over the country, I've met wonderful people and I've experienced an overwhelming feeling of love and support from every corner of our great nation.  Of all the new opportunities this Medal has offered me, one of my favorites is the opportunity I have to speak to groups across the country, sharing the story of my Medal of Honor; the story of my teammates.  When I give these talks, it's always my hope that I'll say something that will inspire someone in the audience.  In my speeches, I talk a lot about opportunity and accountability, so I wanted to take a moment today to share some of that message.

I've said many times that I accepted the Medal of Honor, not on my behalf, but on the behalf of my brothers who lost their lives, on behalf of all the men and women serving our country, and on behalf of those who gave all.  I believe that the only reason I am a Medal of Honor recipient is because I was given an opportunity.  On September 8, 2009, when everything that could have gone wrong in Ganjgal Valley, Afghanistan went wrong, I was given the opportunity to defy orders by doing what my family had raised me to do and what the Marine Corps had taught me to do; to leave no man behind.  I truly believe that any other man or woman in uniform, who would have found themselves in my position that day, would have done the same thing.  But it was me who was given that opportunity.

Now, I have an opportunity to make the most of the position I've found myself in, as a Medal of Honor recipient.  I have chosen to use the platform I've been given to try to make a difference in our world.  You see, everyday we are each faced with circumstances; sometimes favorable, often times not.  We can look at these circumstances as situations, or we can see them as opportunities.  I prefer opportunities because it has a much more positive connotation, and I encourage you to do the same.

What we do with the opportunities we are given defines us.  I didn't want to accept the Medal of Honor, when I first learned I would be receiving it.  Still, to this day, I struggle with my feelings of being a Medal of Honor recipient.  But I also realize that receiving the Medal of Honor gives me an opportunity, on a large scale, to bring recognition to our service members and to my brothers who gave their lives for each of us.  It's not always easy, but when I'm feeling tired and I'm losing my will to continue on, I look down at my wrists and I find my inspiration again.  I wear a band on each wrist with the engraved names of my heroes, my fallen brothers, and when I need a lift, I'm reminded that these guys don't have the opportunity to continue on and so I have to do that for them.



We are each provided chances to do something with our lives; to make a difference.  Sometimes it's hard, or even scary, to walk through that door of opportunity because there is no way of knowing where it may lead.  I had no idea that making the decision to enter the valley in Afghanistan would lead me to where I am today.  And I wish things had ended differently than they did.  But the fact is that I cannot control what happened back then, all I can do is move forward today. 

Traveling 25 days a month to speak to groups can be exhausting; even for a 23 year-old.  But I do it because I've been given this opportunity and every opportunity is a gift.  I'll leave you with the following quote and I hope you take it to heart.  I hope each of you take advantage of every opportunity you're given and make the most of your life.

"Too many people are thinking of security instead of opportunity. 
They seem more afraid of life then death."
 ~James F. Byrnes

Semper Fi,
Dakota

Friday, April 13, 2012

Thank a Veteran

Advocating for veteran support has long been a passion of mine.  I grew up learning of the struggles veterans face when returning to civilian life from my grandfather, a veteran Marine. Now, a veteran myself, I know all to well the difficulties our service members deal with, in their attempts to find a new reality once they return from combat.

I wanted to write this blog today because I think it's hard for civilians to understand the position veterans are in, and why they face some of the issues that plague them after their military service is over.  I'm sure you've all read news articles highlighting the most common issues; homelessness, unemployment, the mental and physical conditions effecting many of our veterans.  But before you can begin trying to understand the cause of these issues, I think it's important to consider the biggest struggle our veterans face and that's the mental transition from active duty to civilian life.

The strength of our nation's military is based on a team mentality; everyone does everything the same way at the same time.  While serving, there are very few opportunities to make a decision on your own; most decisions are made for you by your leaders.  Regardless of what branch you serve, all members dress the same, walk the same, eat the same, operate on the same rigid schedule.  Now imagine the challenges one might face when trying to transition from that type of existence, back to a normal civilian existence.  No one is there to tell you what to do and how to do it, anymore.

Many of our service members, and especially those returning from combat, have been living their life in situations where every decision could mean life or death.  Upon returning home from war, it's difficult to find meaning in what most Americans know as everyday living.  There's a scene in the movie The Hurt Locker, that I think really sums up the point I'm making.

At the end of the movie, the main character has just returned home from Iraq.  While serving his tour, he was a part of a bomb squad and everyday he dealt with life or death situations.  In this scene, he's standing in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, just staring at all the boxes of breakfast options; unable to make a decision.  It's difficult for him to choose which cereal he wants to buy because the whole notion seems utterly ridiculous.  He's used to making decisions that will lead to continued life, or death.  Who cares what kind of cereal he picks out!

This scene really resonated with me, because I understand the struggle.  It's so important that our veterans receive the support they need to make a healthy transition to civilian life and I think the first step in that process is for all Americans to try and understand, or at least recognize, the issues our men and women in uniform are facing.

American civilians are blessed to have men and women who volunteer to serve and protect this great country of ours.  Because these people answer the call, others can sleep soundly in their own beds at night, they can enjoy family barbeques and work in the field of their choice, they can celebrate freedom of speech and of religion and they never have to experience the brutal reality of war. 

Our veterans sacrifice everything they have, many of them laying down their own lives, so that the rest of our people can enjoy freedom.  The very least owed to our veterans when they return home is to be shown compassion, gratitude and understanding.  I encourage everyone reading this blog to try and understand that returning home from war is just the first step down a very long road for our veterans.  They need all the love, support and recognition they can get. 

I hope you'll join me in my effort to raise awareness for these men and women and show them how much we appreciate all they have done for each of us.

Semper Fi!
Dakota