Like billions of others, I watched the events of September 11, 2001 unfold live on TV. In my junior year at Dunedin High School in Pinellas County, Florida, I sat in Mr. Peterson’s AP physics class and watched the second plane crash into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. And like billions of others, I knew instantly that the world had changed. I knew in my bones that this attack meant we were going to war.
In 2004, less than a year after graduating from high school, I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. At my request, my contract all but guaranteed me a military occupational specialty in the infantry. I wanted to deploy to a combat zone, but my military career didn’t unfold exactly how I had planned. I never did deploy, but in the end, I still wasn’t shielded from the consequences of what was happening in Afghanistan and Iraq.
During recruit training, I was screened and selected for duty at Marine Barracks Washington, DC. This was an opportunity I was granted. Marine Barracks Washington provides ceremonial support for the National Capital Region and beyond, including State arrivals at the White House and the Pentagon, Presidential Inaugurations, Color Guards at sporting events, and the famous Sunset and Evening Parades in the summer. I had the option to either go to the fleet Marine force and do my part in the war as soon as possible, or take the prestigious posting in Washington, which would delay any deployment by at least two years. It was not an easy choice for me to make. As a Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps cadet in high school, I was a member of the drill team and quite familiar with Marine Barracks Washington and its special traditions and status as the showpiece of the Marine Corps. I took the option to move to the nation’s capital and prepared to be a literal poster boy for the Corps.
In my view, the Barracks’ most critical mission and its most solemn duty is performing funerals for fallen Marines at Arlington National Cemetery. In the two years I spent marching, I personally participated in over 100 funerals, but my unit was by no means responsible for every Marine funeral between 2005-2007. Not even close. I will never forget the grief-stricken faces of the mothers, the fathers, the children, and the husbands and wives weeping amidst gardens of grass and stone. Each bundle of stars neatly folded and squeezed into the chests of those left behind for those taken from them far too soon. By age 20, I had spent many more days in a cemetery than most will spend in a lifetime.
I never did make it to combat.
Instead, I finished my 4-year enlistment at the Barracks and moved back home to Florida to go to college on the GI Bill. I studied political science which included courses in foreign policy and international relations. I learned about the history of diplomacy and the role of humanitarian assistance and international development in achieving foreign policy objectives. I learned about the origins of terrorist organizations and the risk factors that contribute to radicalization and violent extremism. I learned about the tools we have as a society to try make the world safer — for us and for everyone else. I learned about how diplomacy and foreign aid can be used to look five, ten, twenty years down the line, to try to curb the violence and instability that often follows famine and the societal collapse that comes from public corruption and the breakdown of the rule of law. I learned more about how the world works.
Diplomacy and development help the United States reduce threats and keep problems further away from our borders. Just about a penny of every dollar of federal spending goes to fund the State Department, USAID, the Peace Corps, and all of our tools of foreign development and global health. But the return on that investment is truly incalculable in terms of the lives not just saved, but never put at risk in the first place.
This has been my core purpose in advocating for the international affairs budget for over six years at USGLC. I want the Marines, Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen who come after me to spend far less time marching the fields at Arlington. It really is that simple for me. We have the tools to prevent conflict before it spirals out of control. We have the tools to shape the conversation on the global stage, to work with our partners and allies to help lift at-risk communities out of poverty and create brighter futures and engender goodwill towards America in the process. We have the power, the talent, and the money to take the long view and help make the world a safer, more stable, and more secure place for everyone, including ourselves.
What we need more of is the will. The will to do…and that is where my fellow veterans come in.
As USGLC’s Director of Veterans Outreach, I have had the honor and the privilege to travel the country and meet countless veterans of every rank. USGLC’s Veterans for Smart Power (VSP) initiative cuts across the depth and breadth of military service. We count among us those who have served from four years to 40 years — veterans who have been involved in every conflict since Vietnam and stationed globally and forward deployed. Many have worked alongside our dedicated diplomats and development professionals, making life-long friends in the process. These veterans understand that the challenges we face around the world cannot be solved through military power alone. They know that diplomacy and development, alongside defense, are essential in achieving our national security objectives. To be successful, you cannot have one without the other.
Together, the VSP meet with elected leaders in Congress and urge them to fund diplomacy and development initiatives. We urge them to consider the benefits of an all-tools approach to foreign policy, and we remind them of the consequences of failing to lead with the civilian tools at our disposal. The value that these veteran voices bring to such discussions cannot be overstated. When someone who has worn the nation’s colors, someone who is more often associated with the tools of war, extols the power, the virtue, and the absolute necessity of our tools of persuasion and goodwill, Congress listens. A personal story goes a long way. I’ve been telling my own for years. I know my story makes a difference because I’ve seen it in the elected leaders’ faces, and I have seen the impact recorded in statements and votes.
This Veterans Day, I salute my fellow servicemen and women. To those who made it back and to those of us who had the fortune never to have gone, I say thank you. And thank you for continuing to serve by sharing your stories and experiences with our fellow Americans. I am grateful for all the veterans who advocate for our civilian tools every day.