Why we should remember our shared purpose on Veterans Day

As U.S. involvement in Iraq continues, a U.S. Marine searches an ambulance carrying an injured Iraqi soldier.
As U.S. involvement in Iraq continues, a U.S. Marine searches an ambulance carrying an injured Iraqi soldier. COURTESY OF U.S. MARINES

Belleau Wood. Guadalcanal. Iwo Jima. Chosin Reservoir. Hue City. Fallujah. Ramadi. Marjah. Sangin. Each a place cemented into the revered lore of the Marine Corps; each a place where Marines fought, died, demonstrated American resolve, and reminded the nation to never forget the sacrifices made for so many by so very few. In one way or another, Marines pulled us together then, and the American spirit found in the Marine Corps will do it again.

I served as a Marine Corps officer and led platoons in Iraq and Afghanistan. I later commanded an infantry company in the reserves and continue to serve in the reserves.

The men and women I led were from different communities and had different life experiences. Some were from wealthy families and some were from families living below the poverty line. They had different levels of educational attainment. We all left behind family and friends to serve our country.

Many Marines identified as Christians, but there were also Jews and Muslims. Some were devoutly religious, and some didn’t adhere to any religion. There were black, white, and brown Marines, but in the Corps, we’re all green. And sexual orientation just didn’t matter.

Some were politically conservative, some were liberal, and like our broader society, many were somewhere in the between. During downtime, I heard Marines debate every issue imaginable. I saw passion, and sometimes anger, on both sides of those debates. But when they put on their gear, loaded their weapons, and embarked on a mission, they were forged together by a shared purpose. They loved their country and were willing to fight for it. And if necessary, they were ready to die for each other. It was a bond that couldn’t be broken.

Leading Marines, I witnessed the spirit of America, the best of what America is, or at least, what it can be. Marines place the mission and each other before themselves—an idea that seems entirely lost in our current politics.

When I think about Marines, I feel a profound sense of hope that people can unite behind a shared purpose. By its very existence, America represents the greatest hope for humanity. Yet, in this country for which brave Marines are prepared to lay down their lives, Americans are engaged in an ideological war with one another. We’ve built defenses and emplaced cannons around our tribes, and many are also on the offensive.

We’ve just emerged from one of the most contentious mid-term election cycles in recent history. Negative ads and cut-throat politics have exhausted many of us. Americans haven’t been this polarized since the Civil War, and we’re all suffering the consequences.

We’re undermining our strengths and alienating our allies while watching China become more powerful and Russia become bolder. We’re trading our decency and humanity for votes. And we’re intentionally ignoring the imminent existential threat of climate change.

In the Marine Corps, I’ve witnessed what we could have as a nation. The ability to often disagree as individuals, but to unite behind what binds us together, our purpose, our hope. If we can peer through the cannon smoke, I believe Americans can once again find that hope, and I believe we must. Not just for the sake of civility—smiling at someone while you pull the rug out from under them doesn’t make better policy—but to prepare for the battles ahead.

This Veterans Day, remember the sacrifices Americans have made and continue to make to maintain freedom, ward off evil, and preserve the hope that propels us forward.

Remember that we all share core American values. Remember that while we may have conflicting views on many issues, we’re bound together by the debt we owe to those who’ve fought and died to preserve our right to express those views. Marines fight for each other because when they go into battle, sometimes each other is all they’ve got. Americans should follow their example.

Brandon Heffinger is a Marine Corps officer, the director of the Wake Forest Veterans Legal Clinic, and an attorney in Raleigh.

A 10-part documentary series from McClatchy Studios follows three U.S. veterans living with PTSD. Watch the full series at facebook.com/WarWithinShow/