Throughout my four decades in the Navy, I sailed on my fair share of deployments, both in peace and war. Most were at least six months long, and during most of my time at sea there was no reliable communication from the ship to my home– just scratchy HF transmissions over primitive radio systems using military protocols to conduct the conversation, i.e. “I love you, over.” Some of my deployments were relatively benign “show the flag” cruises with a variety of liberty ports along the way, and no real prospect of danger. Others were into combat, sailing into the Arabian Gulf under Iranian missiles during the tanker war in Operation Ernest Will, conducting anti-air warfare operations in the northern Gulf during Operation Desert Storm after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and throughout the ongoing war on terror in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
For all of those deployments, my wife and our two daughters on the home front worried about me and waited for me. For me, and for the vast majority of military personnel, I suspect, the forward deployments were simply integral to the career I had chosen. I didn’t overthink the risks or the separations, but dealt with them as steadily as I could. If I’m being honest, I had only a vague sense of how the stresses of those long deployments affected my family back in homeport, but I never fully appreciated how much they worried about me – until now.
Today’s war against coronavirus is not my fight. But my daughters both grew up and married physicians, and one of my girls is a registered nurse herself. So suddenly I find myself not the one forward deployed in danger, but the one at home worried about my children as they face this “invisible enemy,” COVID-19. All of a sudden, I find myself at home awaiting word from them each day and worrying if they are OK, if they are still healthy. In my mind, my family members are representative of the millions of men and women who are putting on those N95 masks, elastic gloves, face shields and gowns – armoring up – and going into combat day after day. We see them across the media constantly, and the vast majority are stalwart, brave, relentless, and uncomplaining warriors on behalf of all of us. I worry desperately about all of those medical warriors, and especially those in my own family who are sailing in harms way. How should we think about them as this campaign unfolds?
First, exactly as we say to our military personnel in this country, we should be saying to them, “Thank you for your service.” One thing I’ve learned about the medical profession is how hard they work. And not just in the time of coronavirus. They work hard studying endlessly, doing demanding practical internships and residencies, learning the hard way about the consequences of decisions they make, and dealing with the sheer physical work of nursing and doctoring. The other thing I’ve learned is how much they care – about their patients, about outcomes, and about the country and its health. We should all appreciate more the entire medical profession – and let’s tell them that. Optimism and encouragement are force multipliers, as we’d say in the military.
The second thing I’ve learned being on this side of the deployment experience is that as citizens we should be pushing our elected officials to properly equip these medical warriors. After the urgency of dealing with the virus (hopefully) passes, there will be time to build truly strategic stockpiles for the next pathogens – ventilators, personal protective equipment, research and testing facilities. When I was forward deployed, I counted on having the right equipment in hand, and my nation never let me down. That cannot be said for the medical warriors of today. We can and must do better, and here at home we must push our national and state governments hard.
Third, I’ve learned how impressive this millennial generation is turning out to be, young people born between 1982-2004. Here in the U.S., we are justifiably proud of our WWII “greatest generation,” most of whom are passing now and are at greatest risk from this virus. But I have come to know the millennials well – the majority of young men and women who passed under my command and through the graduate school I led for five years are of that cohort. And of course through my two daughters (the other one is a tech executive) and their physician husbands. It is a big generation of 75 million Americans, that in my experience are deeply concerned about having positive impact on the world; think selflessly about civic responsibility and the greater good; and are unusually willing to serve others. Many deployed and fought in the military in the “forever wars,” and millions more have chosen other paths of service. I suspect that this millennial generation will become a so-called “hero generation,” not only for their leading role in overcoming coronavirus but for facing other challenges as well.
As I sit at home social-distancing, my days of forward deployments are in the wake of my life’s voyage, but I am privileged to watch my family members go forward into the fight for our nation’s health and economy. I am deeply proud of what they are offering to the country, how they fearlessly step into the flow of history despite all the personal risks it entails, and above all how willing they are to serve us. There are so many ways to serve this country – our military certainly, and our diplomats, CIA officers, Peace Corps Volunteers, Teach for America, police, firemen, teachers and educators, on and on. But in this time of true emergency, we should be particularly glad for our medical professionals, and thank them sincerely and constantly. They are the ones deployed today.