Can we have our cake and eat it too?


Managing Editor
In line in a mess hall on Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, I was a front-row witness to one of the most comical psychological military operations of all time.

Shuffling rigidly, quietly through the line – doing everything we could not to draw the attention of any of the circling Drill Sergeants – the private in line directly behind me broke the silence with the question heard ’round the mess hall.

“Drill Sergeant,” he started, as the instructor closed in, hovering over his shoulder. “Since I got the top score on the PT test in the platoon today, can I have a piece of cake?”

We all cried out “no, don’t do it”, but only on the inside. You see, all the cake and pie lining the top shelf of the buffet line was always there, but always off limits. Even four weeks in, no one had even considered challenging that rule.

“Yeah, you should be proud,” the voice calmly said. “Go ahead and pick yourself out a piece.”

The private grabbed what looked like carrot cake with white icing, smiled and made room for it on his tray as we continued moving toward the end of the line.

All seemed well. All was quiet. That meant everything was about to go very wrong. As we sat down, out of the corner of my eye I could see the drill sergeant speaking to another – specifically the one who said no dessert, ever – and pointing in our direction. I put my head down and began shoveling.

Within seconds they descended on the proud private, one on either side as they screamed in his face. After what seemed like hours, one excused himself, and one sat down next to the private. Speaking calmly, he reiterated the rules.

“You know there is no dessert in my mess hall,” he said. “But you are not about to waste that fine piece of cake.” Then he pulled out a napkin, handed it to the private and said, “No, you’re going to keep it so you can enjoy it later. Wrap it up, and put it in your pocket.”
Then as he got up to walk away, he finished with “And if I ever ask for that cake, you better have it with you.”

Over the next month the Sergeant would ask to see the cake, each time it was unwrapped it was a little more crumbly and dry, but the lesson had been learned. On graduation day he was instructed to show it to his parents and the Sergeant told him he could now eat the cake he wanted so badly. Everyone laughed and he was finally relieved to throw it away.

Members of the U.S. Armed Services do crazy things for all of us. Some are comical, jumping through hoops to make it through basic training. Others are more personal like being away from family for extended amounts of time. Still others are more costly as they sometimes willingly sacrifice their own lives for others.

What they do and sacrifice for us all should never be underestimated or forgotten. Each person who has taken that oath has earned our respect and gratitude. They allow all of us to have our cake and eat it to, even if they have gone without.

The United States has been at war for nearly two decades since Sept. 11, 2001. More than 2.7 million service members have been deployed, and 225,000 army personnel have been deployed three or more times in that span.

The Veterans Administration estimates that 11-20 percent of all veterans who have served in overseas deployments since Sept. 11 have dealt with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in a given year. Between 2008 and 2016, there were more than 6,000 veteran suicides each year.

Many veterans come back with life-altering physical injuries due to the loss of a limb or other trauma. The Pentagon estimates more than 32,000 service members were injured in Iraq alone through 2016.

Life can’t be easy when someone returns from war. How we fight and how we deploy troops – and bring them home – has changed over the last 50 years. Triumphant returns are muted, and suddenly being back at home is not a simple switch to throw.

Too often it falls on charities to provide needed services and assistance to our veterans. We give them much attention in all those patriotic moments, but often do little in between.

It is simply not enough in return for what we asked of them in the first place. It is important that in addition to the pats on the back, the applause, the bumper stickers and salutes on patriotic holidays that we are meeting the needs of our veterans every day. Some of us were fortunate enough to have come home with only good experiences and outrageous stories, with few needs and no scars following our service, but many were not so lucky as they sacrificed so much more.

Show your appreciation for veterans every day, but on Veterans Day – Nov. 11 – make a special effort to thank the veterans you know and meet. Ask them about their service and enjoy the stories they have to share. Some will make you weep, others may leave you astounded and still others might make you laugh hysterically.

But on Nov. 12 – and each day after – make it your mission to remember their needs, and look for ways to support them. They have earned our support every day, and it is something we must find a way to provide even when the parade is over.