A colonel tells, 'Why I serve'

  • Published
  • By Col. Perry Oaks
I have lived around the military my entire life, having grown up in an Air Force household, and as I reflect back upon the 25 years I've spent on active duty I've often thought about "Why I Serve."

We regularly talk about our "Air Force Core Values," and as important as those are, I trace my continued service back to the Declaration of Independence and the inalienable rights professed by our founding fathers of: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Growing up, I took those individual rights for granted, until I took my first trip to Berlin, back in the spring of 1980, when East Germany was very much a part of the Soviet Bloc. I remember taking the overnight troop train from Frankfurt to Berlin and being told by the conductor that we were forbidden to open the blinds to look out the windows at the countryside, and when I disobeyed that direction, probably like any 19-year-old would in that situation, I distinctly remember how bleak and unappealing the countryside and towns looked. On that trip, we spent a day in East Berlin, and we all noticed the distinct lack of traffic in the streets, the long lines outside the bakeries and the scarcity of smiling faces on people ... but what I recollect most was the almost palpable feeling of relief we felt as we exited the Communist portion of the city and went back through the checkpoint into the American zone ... there was an actual cheer that went up on the bus.

Now let's fast forward to the summer of 1992 and I'm back in Berlin again ... although this time we were able to drive from Frankfurt to Berlin in a car, and didn't have to cross through a single checkpoint. From my previous trip, I have a picture of myself with the Brandenburg Gate in the background, with barbed wire and barricades separating us from No Man's Land and the Gate, and from this trip, I've a picture of myself underneath the Brandenburg Gate. What a difference in atmosphere throughout the city, and brought about, in large part, because of the steadfastness of our military and civilian leadership in standing up for the individual rights we so strongly believe in: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

We make a difference in people's lives, and I'm proud to be a part of that team. When I was deployed to Iraq in 2008-09, I tried to visit patients in the hospital each week just to thank them for their efforts and sacrifice. A large number of patients were Iraqi civilians who had been injured in the local area and treated by our deployed doctors. In one case we had a young Iraqi girl who had undergone numerous surgeries to treat a fractured skull and spent a couple of months as a patient. Her father told me he'd been discouraged to bring his daughter to the base by local leaders because of how awful the Americans were, and that we would not help his child. He relayed to me that he'd seen differently ... with his daughter and others ... and that his primary mission now was to tell his fellow Iraqis how good the Americans were to his people and that we were there to help.

Our nation has been the beacon on the hill to the rest of the world and I am grateful for the opportunity I have had to help keep that flame lit and shining brightly.