As I near retirement – one of those life-altering events that forces you to look at where you’ve been and where you’re going – I’ve found myself reflecting on service, legacy, history and the story of the American Soldier.
When I graduated from airborne school in 2002, the jump wings pinned on my chest had once belonged to my late grandfather. (I’m sure I looked a little silly as a novice paratrooper standing in graduation formation with two combat jump stars on my wings.)
At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate the story behind those wings. My grandfather had always told me he’d served in the Army and World War II, and I knew he had loved it. But I largely knew him as an ornamental horticulturist and a wanderer – a hulk of a man whose greatest dream had been to own an acre of land in every state so he could travel and make camp wherever the spirit moved him.
Seven years into my Army career, my father sent me a book: “Band of Brothers.” “If you want to know what your grandfather did,” my dad wrote, “read this.”
Through that book – that then became the beloved HBO mini-series – I learned about Lt. Frederick “Moose” Heyliger. With the now-famous Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, my grandfather had jumped deep behind enemy lines on D-Day, landing in St. Mere Eglise, France.
My grandfather was part of some of the most storied moments of that war: Operation Overlord, Operation Market Garden, Operation Pegasus. He took command of Easy Company after famed company commander Dick Winters was assigned to be the battalion’s executive officer.
During Operation Pegasus on October 23, 1944, my grandfather and Easy Company oversaw the rescue of 138 British troops stranded in German territory. He received the British Military Cross, but shortly after was accidentally shot by one of his own men, a trooper jumpy from all he’d experienced, a week later. He underwent skin and nerve grafts in a long, slow recovery before being discharged in February 1947.
I don’t share any of this to brag, though I’m proud as hell of my grandfather’s service and sacrifice. I share it because I’ve learned over the years that the stories of our brothers and sisters to our right and left – not to mention all those who have gone before – are often the very stories that inspired many of us to serve and inspire us to continue serving still.
Each one of us has stories like this that define our careers. Reflecting on them can be just what we need when times are hard, when deployments are long, when seemingly endless training events mean long days and weeks away from family and home. They remind us why we put on this uniform each day, even when that PT alarm seems too early or the mission seems too daunting.
My grandfather never lived to see me become a paratrooper with the 82nd or a Soldier with the 101st. But his legacy and service has inspired me – as has the service and sacrifice of so many modern Soldiers I have grown to know and love during my years in uniform.
First Army’s commanding general, Lt. Gen. Tony Aguto, likes to say that the stories of America’s Soldiers are what inspire us to put on our uniform with pride. I know that’s been true for me all these years.
I give you this one simple piece of advice as I go: Learn the stories of the patriots who serve beside you. Learn the lineage from which you come, be that your own family or the units to which you are assigned. The stories make the hard days easier, and they make the sacrifice more meaningful. We truly do stand on the shoulders of giants.
I once said that I hoped I would end my career back at the 101st Airborne. I thought that would be the perfect bookend to my grandfather’s and my service.
But instead I had the opportunity to close this final chapter of service at First Army, the very organization that commanded all American ground and airborne forces on D-Day. It’s the honor of my life to wear the block A patch of the unit that gave my grandfather the order to jump deep behind enemy lines, to represent “The Greatest Generation,” to form a true “Band of Brothers.”
Here’s what I know about Moose Heyliger: He loved his country. He loved serving in the Army and his fellow Soldiers. And he believed some personal sacrifice on his part was well worth the reward: a safer, more free and more just world.
It is my hope that someone someday might say a similar thing about me.