COLUMN: Veterans part of extended family

Set for a convoy escort mission in Iraq in late 2008 are Lt. Col. Richard Blair, left, commander of 3rd Battalion, 133rd Field Artillery Regiment; Lt. Col. Darrel Daniels, commander, 1st Squadron, 151st Cavalry Regiment; and Sgt. Rick Fahr Jr., tactical driver and personal security detail for Daniels. Third Battalion replaced 1st Squadron, and missions involving personnel from both units was part of the handoff of responsibilities.
Courtesy Arkansas Army National Guard

It's simple to explain but maybe impossible to fully understand. Unless you're in the family.

The bond among those who serve -- and served -- in the military is one of the strongest, with no regard for space or time.

I haven't worn a military uniform in going on a decade, but my service is seldom far away. Part of the reason why is my brothers and sisters in arms remain close.

I talk to my troop commander several times a day, mostly through social media.

The major who worked across the hall while we were in Iraq calls regularly to check in and let me know when he's going to be in the area.

Whenever I'm in a given town, I know where to look to find sergeant so-and-so or the medic who works at that place. And we pick up where we left off, like we saw each other the day before.

There are lots of reasons for this bond.

Proximity

Want to get to know people up close and personal? Serve in the military.

There's never much personal space, no matter where you are -- Fort Sill, Oklahoma; Camp Shelby, Mississippi; Camp America North, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; or Tallil air base, southern Iraq. You'll find yourself crammed into barracks or hooches with several (or several dozen) friends. The vehicles aren't much different. How many troops will fit in a typical Humvee? How many you got?

Time to eat? Several thousand people had the same idea.

Gym? Packed.

Time for a haircut? Hope you're not in a hurry.

Lots and lots of people around. All. The. Time.

Understanding

One of the military's most basic principles is its universal nature. This vehicle has the exact same parts as that one. This .50-caliber machine gun goes together and comes apart as every other one. This radio in Missouri works just the same as ones in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and Japan.

But the military's universal structure extends beyond things to experiences.

Everyone who's gone through basic training remembers the gas chamber. Everyone who's been deployed recalls the pre-deployment screenings and the five days of post-deployment out-processing. And everyone who's served in combat knows what it feels like to get shot at.

These shared experiences are the fodder for jokes around the chow hall and the impetus for a helping hand when needed.

Forged in battle

Of all the ties binding together the fabric of military service, the brotherhood and sisterhood of putting your life on the line to ensure the person next to you gets to go home is, without doubt, one remaining long after the bullets, mortars and roadside bombs have become hardened memories.

Folks in the military come up with phrases, and one heard on and off the battlefield is "I've got your 6." In war, it means, "I'm watching your back." At home, it means, "I'm here for you."

There are lots of men and women I served with who know I'm a phone call away, and I know I could call several dozen people who would do anything I ask. Multiply this family by the millions of people who have served, and you have a huge military family reaching from sea to shining sea and beyond.

It's based on trust, respect, loyalty.

I had a weird job in Iraq, transferring into an infantry brigade for a deployment in 2007 and 2008. I was the tactical driver and personal security detail for a cavalry squadron commander, and by virtue of my journalism background, I was the de facto public information officer for Arkansas troops in the southern third of the country, Most of the leadership in the squadron had already served in Iraq, and they were battle tested, hardened. They didn't automatically give us new folks any benefit of the doubt; we had to prove ourselves because lives were on the line every moment of every day. About halfway through the tour, I needed to get to brigade headquarters, and the squadron commander OK'd me putting together a mission to Baghdad. My troop commander volunteered to be my gunner (against the rules, actually, but that's not the point) because some of his buddies were there, and he wanted to reconnect with them. While we were on base, the commander came to me and asked if I would volunteer for a mission his friends were conducting. The mission was to round up some folks, and they needed another gun truck to pull security around the site. Of course, I would go, but that was a foregone conclusion. What mattered was the commander vouched for me because he knew he could trust me and I wouldn't let them down.

Trust. Respect. Loyalty.

By the end of the tour, I'd earned my cavalry Stetson and golden spurs. They hang beside my front door, a reminder every time I see them of the men and women I served with and the family we became, are today and forever will be.

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