Shoulder-to-Shoulder With the Reality of War
By Milo Ventimiglia
When I told my loved ones and friends I was going to a war zone, I received a typical reaction – concern, a lot of questions, but ultimately a lot of pride in my decision to go.
When actors, athletes, and public figures get the chance to be around the awe-inspiring U.S. military the experience is usually quick – a photo opportunity, a story printed, and then it’s over.
Eight days into my 2008 tour to Iraq and Afghanistan, my group had just returned from a bumpy Black Hawk ride when the realities of war were placed right in front of me. Two caskets of soldiers who had been killed in action, each covered with an American flag, were being led to a waiting C-130 to be taken home as 600 soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen stood at quiet attention. We all stood in silence, some of us saying a prayer, holding hands or quietly crying. We stood together, honoring those two courageous Americans, and I knew at that moment that I had signed up for life; signed up for spreading the support of the brave souls that put their lives on the front line protecting our nation.
Every Veterans Day, I call my father and thank him for his service and express how happy I am he came home from Vietnam. As a boy, I’d wear my grandfather’s Veterans of Foreign Wars cap when I played in the yard. I would speak with the few friends who had joined the military, humbled by their service. My father told me his stories of Vietnam when I was growing up, and now I had stories to share with him. I never understood how his generation, troubled by the war, took that anger out on the soldier. That was always unsettling to me. I didn’t want history to repeat itself. I had to do something about it.
I wanted to spend time with active-duty troops and veterans to spread the word of their hard work, their dedication, and their sacrifice from those interactions. We all have jobs and responsibilities in life. We all have duties and pressures. This work is my heart.
Before that first tour in ’08, I asked my USO rep what I could do while on tour. I told her I was not a musician, so I couldn’t bring a band to entertain. What could I do? My USO rep told me that my being there would make a difference. That taking time out of my life to travel as far as we had was what would make the difference.
I didn’t understand until I was down range shaking 6,000 hands; sharing meals with every rank of soldier, Marine, sailor, and airman; taking photos; and getting on cellphones with the families of the men and women I was with, just to say “hello.” But standing on the tarmac at Bagram, shoulder-to-shoulder with the entire base to say one last farewell to those two brave souls really struck me. That memory has been burned in my mind and not a day goes by that I don’t think about each one of those individuals. It was one of the most profound experiences I have ever had.
To my generation, to those before me that might’ve forgotten, and to those younger than me who might not have an interest, I want to make them aware of what I have seen and share with them how we as a country can look out for those that have looked out for us. This mission led me to a conversation with Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). With the tour to Iraq and Afghanistan in my back pocket, I asked Paul how I could help. He pulled me into his ranks, a community of veterans with events celebrating OEF and OIF vets, as well as press opportunities to improve the lives of those vets and their families.
There are the tours, the trips to the hospitals (military and non-military), the press and the events, all of it adding up to my own service, my own way of letting troops and veterans know “I’ve got their back.” I’m only one guy. But it’s important to me to help spread awareness – to get Americans today to take the time to think about our men and women abroad.
This has become my life’s mission. I hope to be 60- or 70-years-old and still inspiring service.
–Milo Ventimiglia is an actor, producer, director and two-time USO tour veteran.
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