Craig and For Love of Country book cover

By Craig Theisen (MS’15)

I recently read a pre-release copy* of For Love of Country: What Our Veterans Can Teach Us About Citizenship, Heroism, and Sacrifice, by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Washington Post journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran.

As an Air Force veteran and retiree who served from 1993 to 2013, I found myself feeling somewhat skeptical about a book produced by a coffee czar and his writing partner, no matter how well meant. I thought it would be too focused on fearless displays of courage to capture the millions of instances of sacrifice and selflessness that almost every service member has displayed during the past twenty years of war.

As it turned out, though, the book was a good reminder of the sacrifice of our nation’s veterans, delivered in detail and without too much of a feeling that war is a glorious or enviable experience. There are indeed the big-impact stories of Medal of Honor winners and nominees, an amazing but often-posthumous fraternity of courage, but there are also interesting and heartening examples of ordinary men and women who stepped up to make a difference and serve their nation.

The authors are also careful to note the humanity of the men and women in uniform they talked to—their flaws, quirks and personal struggles. That could be why, by the end of the book, I felt “re-blued”—a term we use in the Air Force to describe the effect that a story of courage and sacrifice can have on our occasionally jaded perspectives.

Some Gave All

For the Love of Country tells the story of two Marines, Jordan Haerter and John Yale. The former had been transformed from a pudgy video-game player into a warrior; the latter was often chided by his comrades for being more of a jokester than a marine. Both were normal young men who chose to serve and were not anyone's Hollywood image of a hero. And both stood their ground firing constantly as Iraqi police ran away, with an explosives-laden truck headed for their compound. They had about six seconds to make a difference rather than try to save their own lives; and in that short interval they died—but prevented the truck from penetrating their base and killing their comrades.

Theirs is a story that is repeated throughout the history of war—a case of two very ordinary guys who gave their young lives to save their friends.

Citizen Soldiers

The book also contains stories of those who threw everything they had into their service, like Bill Krissof, a 60-something doctor who joined the Marines after his son was killed in Iraq. He saved countless lives as a surgeon while wearing a uniform in a combat theater at a time when most of his peers might be on the golf course or enjoying their lucrative practices.

I've met a few Bill Krissofs in the theater, 60-something-year-olds who had enlisted, along with officers who convinced the service to let them come back on active duty to do their part.

The theater of war is also full of volunteers. While serving in Kandahar, Afghanistan, I recall being struck by all the Canadians who had put their high-powered careers on hold to volunteer as barbers or as Tim Horton’s coffee servers.

Serving Beyond the Uniform

In a section of the book devoted to post-service careers, we find inspiring stories like that of Army Lieutenant Colonel David Oclander, who decided to teach in the worst school districts in Chicago rather than take a lucrative defense contracting job.

This struck home for me, having chosen to go into social work as a counselor rather than fly for the airlines or go into contracting or business myself. I appreciate the courage such a decision takes, to give back rather than pursue the path with the most money and prestige.

Few Examples of Airmen or Sailors

One criticism I have of the book is the dearth of stories of Air Force or (non-SEAL) Navy service members. The assumption is that people like myself, who were in airplanes or on ships, aren't as inspiring to civilian readers because they don't understand what we do. How to describe the fear and heroism of the aircrew in extreme danger, with binary outcomes of either coming back fine or being spread out over a mile in burning wreckage on the ground? The four peers and friends of mine who died flying were killed because of the sheer danger of what we do, in peacetime missions. How to describe the danger of landing on a carrier deck, or being the sailor working that deck, with planes and cables and jet blast threatening life and limb, often in the dark and only inches from a nine-story fall to certain death in an icy ocean? And of course Airmen and Sailors often find themselves on the ground doing many of the same roles as their Soldier and Marine counterparts.

Just a cursory search in Wikipedia turns up Air Force recipients of the Air Force Cross, the service’s second-highest medal for bravery, including:

  • Senior Airman Jason Cunningham, a pararescueman who provided medical care and saved 10 soldiers in the battle of Takhur Ghar in 2002, before dying of his own wounds.
  • Staff Sergeant Robert Gutierrez Jr, who saved his special forces team by calling in multiple airstrikes while suffering from a chest wound and collapsed lung.

Examples of brave sailors abound as well. One of them is Lieutenant J.G. Dominic Frank, a Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal team leader who was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” for Valor for his work defusing bombs around an Afghan village and subsequently treating the bullet wound of their unit’s combat controller.

All Gave Some

There was also little mention of the tens of thousands who left their families behind to do a thankless combat support job in primitive conditions, feeling as though the world is moving on without them. If the heroes of this book are the tip of the spear, let’s not forget that behind that shiny piece of metal are the people pushing it along and supporting it. For these service men and women, children were born, weddings were held, sick relatives lay dying, first steps were taken, relatives graduated from school, and myriad other life events took place while they worked on in what we call “Groundhog Day” as every day is the same slog of work and stress and intense focus on some forward operating base or ship.

Perhaps mortars hit the base daily meaning they had to scurry into shelters repeatedly, and perhaps they lived in black mold-infested dwellings with overflowing sewage in the latrines and worked between 12 and 36 hours straight while pushing cargo pallets—and, despite injuring themselves, continued to work because the job needs to be done.

Serving Those Who Served

Thankfully, the authors do not dwell too much on the stories of military service members becoming broken by their experiences of war. They do, however, discuss the effects of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury on the service members’ lives after their service. They go so far as to champion the quixotic-seeming efforts of retired General Peter Chiarelli to demand that university researchers and agencies share information about traumatic brain injury instead of holding their discoveries as secrets until they can publish papers about them.

This chapter was very interesting while also somewhat disheartening, as it showed that while he has contacts and clout and has been working tirelessly to improve the information-sharing, he has been stymied every step of the way by intellectual fiefdoms that are more interested in maximizing their funding or protecting their turf than providing rapid advancements to the treatment provided to the nation’s warriors. The general is right to question why the academic community hasn't fostered the same kind of teamwork that characterized initial rounds of AIDS research or the response by professional sports physicians to traumatic brain injuries among major league athletes.

The authors also discuss some very successful nonprofits working to improve the lives of veterans and their family members. In a field of seemingly thousands of such organizations, the Semper Fi Fund, Team Rubicon, Team Red, White and Blue, and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors’ Good Grief Camp are truly some of the best, and I was happy the authors chose to highlight their contributions.

In the end the authors exhort the public to really do something for veterans beyond the typical magnetic yellow ribbon and other such niceties. They call on industry to hire vets, and politicians to put aside their partisanship to support them. They ask the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide them with care in a timely way, in a way that is deserving of their service.

Having spent almost two decades in combat operations, I have to say I appreciate their intent and find their call to action appropriate, and moving.

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*The CSSW Communications Office would like to acknowledge Knopf for sending a pre-release copy of For Love of Country for review.

Related link:

Why Air Force Veteran Craig Theisen (MS’15) Chose Social Work over Other Professions

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