Be All You Can Be, The Army Motto that Inspired a Generation
June 10th, 2013 Comment on this post!
June 7th, two weeks after the official publication date of my memoir, I had a book launch party at the Gold Star Military Museum on Camp Dodge, in Johnston, Iowa. It was a evening of eat, drink and be merry. The guest list included the mayor of the city of Johnston, the state’s former and current public affairs officers, the museum’s board of directors, officers from my American Legion Post 663, actors from The Peak Agency, fellow writers, friends and family. Outreach Pastor Craig Ferguson of New Hope United Methodist Church provided the invocation and professional singer Sarah Stallman sung one of the most beautiful renditions of the National Anthem I’ve ever heard. Museum Curator Mike Vogt, “the best pilot I know” who provided the foreword in my book, told the audience about the museum and introduced me. This is what I said:
I hope that this event brings a touch of inspiration to your life tonight, because I am standing here as evidence that dreams can come true. Now they don’t always and they don’t automatically, but they can. And that tiny word “can,” gave me just enough conviction to decide to deploy to Iraq three days before the end of my enlistment contract, just enough resilience to get me through 403 days away from home, just enough hope to start a book that nearly everyone I talked to said would never be published, just enough faith to trust that God designed it all for a purpose higher than what I could ever anticipate.
“Be All You Can Be,” the Army slogan from 1980-2001, the slogan that drew me in on commercial breaks during M*A*S*H and the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather—two of the only television programs I watched growing up. I’m not sure which had a deeper influence on me, Rather’s reporting, his trustworthy voice and presence delivering what I assumed to be God’s truth, or Captain “Hawkeye” Pierce, the undeniably brilliant surgeon that never could quite play by the rules.
“Be All You Can Be” was the Army’s slogan for 21 years and for good reason. It worked. It inspired a nation of young people to become their best by entering into military service; what really could be more truthful. It certainly was for me.
Three years in the active duty Army, five years in the National Guard and one year deployed to Iraq made an indelible print on my life. That impression, like a fingerprint, shares characteristics with other military members’ impressions, including putting the mission above all, being prepared for and efficient in all working conditions—indoor or outdoor, physical and mental—adapting and overcoming in order to get the job done, never giving up, being a good leader and team member and always, always keeping that “can-do” spirit.
Yet my experience, and reflection back on it, like a fingerprint is unique to me. My story, “All I Could Be” a title derived from that old Army slogan, cannot begin to tell the whole story for women in the military or the entire truth of the 2133rd Transportation Company that I was deployed with. I accepted that limitation from the sketching of the first draft because of the benefit, I believe, that has come and will continue to develop from the final draft.
One benefit is that it starts the conversation. It’s a line of dialogue, a single descriptive scene, a character portrait that asks the reader first to walk alongside me for a while, endure the gritty desert environment, explore the uniqueness of the female soldier experience, envision the destruction of war and feel the camaraderie, friendship and love of the brother and sisterhood. It reminds the reader that young people go to war and while making the mistakes expected of their years, they also become hardened and old and wise beyond their years.
Many of you know that during my deployment part of my sanity was kept in recording my days in journals, letters, pictures, a mission log and calendar—hundreds of pages, thousands of details and memory joggers—that helped me piece my story back together one chapter at a time over the eight years following my deployment. Aside from my personal notes, when I wasn’t driving a truck, I worked as the designated unit correspondent. I wrote Family Support Group updates, the company newsletter, stories for my Squadron’s newsletter and penned a few articles for an Iowa newspaper. I completed all the required hours of my journalism internship while deployed and the public affairs officer of the Regiment choose me to be interviewed by Geraldo Rivera, a moment of excitement that I woke up at 0300 for that never even aired.
But I was not deterred from finding my place in front of the camera or in the sun. And that just enough conviction and resilience and hope and faith, well, it originated far before my military training. My story is not a new story, it’s a continuation from generations past that grew up from the sturdy roots of my parents. They passed to me a legacy of hard work and cultural literacy that I am responsible for carrying forward until my daughters are able to take it over.
Grace and Noelle, my two beautiful daughters, about to turn three and four are home playing with Dad tonight. Now they love books, but my husband and I both agreed they should not read mine until they are about 14. I hope they are proud of their mother that day they finally read it. To Tom, I reserve the utmost respect and admiration for. Being a writer’s spouse (I now think) must be something like being an officer’s spouse—it’s a lot of behind the scenes, tiring, often undervalued and thankless work. Tonight I recognize how his sacrifices contributed to my success and I will be forever grateful to him for that. To my family here tonight, my mother, my brother Lonnie and sister-in-law Lori, thank you for your support. To my fellow veterans, writers, artists, church members, friends: thank you for being here and for sharing in the pinnacle event of this book journey with me.
Be All You Can Be. It’s a motto that doesn’t require all of us to become doctors or generals or astronauts or best-selling authors (though some of us it will), but it does demand that we embrace our individual destiny. It insists we take our unique gifts and talents, add our hard work and dedication, deposit generously into the dream accounts of others so that combined with a little bit of magic, we can all rise to our very best, to further the larger story, pass along a greater legacy, and fulfill our part in life’s ultimate design, a plan we will never be privy to or fully understand.
But we don’t need to read ahead to the end of the book in order to be the author of our own lives. We need only enough light for the page we’re on.
[Thank you to everyone in attendance and those that were present in spirit for your encouraging words and generous support. When I was discouraged, your faith became the necessary footholds along my route to the publishing summit. I will be grateful, always, for each of you.]