By Richard B. Myers

This great experiment in democracy in our country owes much of its success to our United States military, and who we are as a culture. Our men and women who have served in uniform enable us to live in the best country in the world, by any measure.

Over 43 million men and women have served in the military for this country. Over 630,000 have died in battle for our freedoms. I am reminded of a painting in the Pentagon, in the stairway that leads up to the Air Force Chief of Staff’s office, of an Air Force family kneeling in a chapel. On the bottom of the picture, there is a verse from Isaiah, which reads, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” The artist, with his paintbrush, completes the verse, “Here I am. Send me.”

That picture meant a lot to me because it says a lot about those who serve. Here I am. Send me.

The book “1776” by David McCullough is one of my favorite books and is a terrific story about courage, sacrifice, and optimism. Optimism, because in 1776, the Continental Congress picked this untested officer to be the general of the Continental Army—George Washington. Washington started out with 30,000-40,000 men in Boston. Near the end of the year he was down to fewer than 4,000 troops. He had been beaten all the way down the East Coast.

In the middle of that year, the Continental Congress declared Independence. Our army was not doing well against the greatest power on earth, and yet we declared independence against that same power. To say the least, that was optimistic!

General Washington decided to go on the attack against the Hessian forces, and it would be, in the end, his only victory that year. As he took the troops to battle, some had shoes, some had rags around their feet, and some had bare feet. It was December, with snow and ice on the ground, and yet the men didn’t complain—demonstrating courage and sacrifice.

Those same traits of courage, sacrifice, and optimism that were exhibited in 1776 are embodied in our veterans today.

The notion of Veterans Day sprang out of Armistice Day that ended World War I. The entry into that war by the United States was controversial. Any time a president takes the country to war, it is controversial. The men and women who went to war in 1917 knew it would not be easy.

For three-and-a-half years the Allies had been fighting on the European continent with very little progress. It looked as though nothing was going to bring the war to a favorable conclusion. The mindset at the time was that the war was unpopular, it didn’t look like it could be won, and it was costing many lives.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, answers a representative’s question during a House Armed Services Committee hearing in 2005. | Photo credit DoD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Cherie A. Thurlby

In 1916, during the battle of Somme, in just five months, over 1.1 million men were killed in action. In one battle, the Allied forces lost 88,000 men for every mile gained.

How did our troops respond? They volunteered. Some were drafted. Over a million went off to Europe thinking they could impact the outcome of the war and of history. They went showing great optimism, even though the world today would say they were on a fool’s errand.

They went, they fought, and they did change the world and altered the course of history—just as the men of the Revolutionary War had done before them. I am reminded again of, “Here I am. Send me.”

In World War II, many responded, “Here I am. Send me.” They too, of course, changed the world.

The Korean War that followed soon after WWII was clearly unpopular. Even when the armistice was signed, it was asked how can this little half of a peninsula ever amount to anything? It was said that South Korea wouldn’t be a viable democracy, and they certainly wouldn’t be a viable economy. I would submit, because of U.S. Armed Forces, the course of the Korean peninsula changed. Today, South Korea is one of the most dynamic economies the world has ever seen.

This country did not get it right in Vietnam by taking out their dislike for the conflict on those who had fought in uniform. When I returned from my tour in the Vietnam War in 1970, I flew in on a charter flight into Travis Air Force Base in California, and transitioned by bus down to San Francisco International Airport to catch my flight to Kansas City.

We were told, “You had better take your uniform off,” as we were getting on the buses.

“Why should I take my uniform off?” I asked.

“If you don’t, you will be harassed as you go through the airport,” I was told. I thought, can that be? But I changed into civilian clothes, and I didn’t encounter any problems. I remember thinking, What is wrong with this picture?

It is so different today.

Our veterans today have many different challenges than any previous generation has had.

This is a protracted conflict—eight years of war, eight years of combat. While we are a nation at war, the only ones that really know it, that feel it, that participate in it, are our U.S. military and their families. There are other great Americans who are participating, but primarily, it is the U.S. military who are making most of the sacrifices.

We have a shadowy enemy. An enemy that is hard to fight and is absolutely ruthless. That is a bad combination. The fight requires a certain professionalism and a certain discipline. It is also an enemy that will not yield to military power alone. Yet the military is currently the primary instrument being used against this particular conflict. A military that has filled in so many times when there were not civilian experts to take the post.

We met a 21-year-old soldier at Walter Reed early on in this conflict. He had suffered an RPG wound to his calf, but he was not going to lose his leg. I asked him, “What’s your MOS, soldier?”

He said, “I am an artillery man.” He had been in the Mosul area.

I said, “We don’t need much artillery up there. What were you doing on an average day?”

“I was helping develop the town council,” he said.

“What does a 21-year-old artillery man know about developing a town council?” I asked.

“I can remember my civics lessons from high school,” he said. “And in any case, sir, I know a lot more about it than they do.”

We have a lot of wounded veterans and active military that we have to take care of—often with horrific wounds.

If you talk with them, you will find the same sense of courage, sacrifice, and optimism we have seen throughout our history. One soldier we visited at Walter Reed had just had his leg amputated. He popped up in bed and said, “Well, I was prepared to give my life for my country, I only had to give my leg.”

That is how he felt. He was absolutely serious. Whether it is that young man or any of the other 50,000 who have returned wounded to this country, I think about the same thing, “Here I am. Send me.” What a great country this is!

Those who have served, look back on their service with many realizations. I realized that we served not just to carry a weapon, although weapons are needed. We served not for the sake of violence, but we would be involved in violence—it’s part of what we do. We served not for glory, although others would honor our service. We came not because we loved war, but because we loved freedom and we loved our nation. We veterans gave up our security, and many gave their lives, so that others would have security in their lives.

This is the legacy that our American veterans have literally carved in the foundation of our society.

Isn’t it great to be an American? Isn’t this a great country? Aren’t we, with whatever our troubles are, blessed to be in this great land?

We have our veterans to thank for that.

As U.S. Army General Omar Bradley, the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of Freedom in 1948, “No word was ever spoken that has held out greater sacrifice, needed more to be nurtured, blessed more the giver, damned more its destroyer, or came closer to being God’s will on earth. May America ever be its protector.“

–Retired Air Force General Richard B. Myers was the 15th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is the author of "Eyes on the Horizon: Serving at the Front Lines of National Security” and serves on the USO Board of Governors.