October 15, 2014

Tulsi Gabbard is a Democrat representing Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District. She currently serves as a captain in the Hawaii Army National Guard and deployed to Iraq in 2005 and Kuwait in 2008. She’s also a member of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

After 9/11, our nation’s leaders committed to seeking out and destroying the Islamic extremists who declared war on us, through their attacks, which killed close to 3,000 people on that fateful day. Like so many others, I enlisted in the Army to fight that fight, and shipped off to Basic Combat Training, in Fort Jackson, SC.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) during training at Fort Hood, Texas, 2008. Courtesy Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard

In 2004, as I campaigned for re-election to my seat in the Hawaii State House, the Hawai’i National Guard’s 29th Brigade Combat Team was activated for an 18-monthlong deployment to Iraq. As I sat at my desk reading the notification email, I found out that I was not on the mandatory deployment roster. Someone else had already filled the job I was trained for.

However, I knew there was no way that I could stay home in my cushy job, in beautiful Hawai’i, and watch my brothers and sisters march off into combat without me. So I withdrew from my campaign, was trained in a different job, and volunteered to deploy with them to Iraq, setting off on an experience that would indelibly change my life.

Shortly after getting to our camp in Iraq – nicknamed “Mortaritaville” because of the daily indirect mortar attacks – I came across a sign at one of the main gates where our patrols came in and out, that read in big block letters, “IS TODAY THE DAY?” A reminder about the fragility of life, the temporary nature of these bodies, and that we can’t take anything for granted, because who knows when our time will come?

I was struck daily by the incredibly high human cost of war. Every day, I had to go through a list of every single casualty and injury that had occurred the day before, and see if any soldiers from our unit were on the list. If they had been hurt and couldn’t return to duty, I would make sure they received the care they needed, were evacuated, and sent back to the warm embrace of their families.

Coming home from two deployments to the Middle East, I wanted to take the experiences I’d had, and impact the decisions made by our nation’s leaders. I felt disheartened that the promises our leaders made after 9/11 to take out the Islamic extremist terrorists seemed to have been forgotten, and instead we were set out to fight wars of choice, consisting of missions of nation-building, occupation, and overthrowing dictators. These wars cost our country thousands of precious American lives, even more veterans returning home with injuries both visible and invisible, as well as billions of dollars of American treasure. The result? The Islamic extremists who declared war against us on 9/11 are even stronger today than they were before, and present an even greater global threat.

Here at home, too many of our brothers and sisters who have served are unemployed, homeless, and still facing great challenges. There are fewer veterans serving in Congress now, than ever before in our nation’s history. Many of our nation’s leaders have never experienced the hardships of combat, the longtime separation from family members, or the loss of a battle buddy, and yet they are the ones responsible for deciding when and where our troops are sent into harms way. More must be done to serve and honor our veterans when they come home, and to recognize the value they bring.

Our veterans know what it means to put the mission first, to put country and service before self, and to get the job done. These are traits we should all aspire to, whether one has worn the uniform or not, as we explore in our own lives how we can best be of service to others.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

Read More From TIME

EDIT POST