The Real Sacrifice

This post is part of The Heart of Chicago Series that will be running on South of I-80 for the month of March. Today, I welcome Daniel Savage of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University.

The Real Sacrifice by Daniel Savage

I’m a Chicagoan, too, I suppose, but I’m a bit of a nomad.

I left Chicago 13 years ago to join the Army via West Point and it’s been kind of a whirlwind since.  The first big jolt came on 9/11, then we invaded Iraq in 2003, and I graduated in 2005, knowing I was eventually headed to war.  Tracing my Army assignments back and forth across the continents gave me whiplash at times – Fort Benning, GA, Germany, Baghdad, Germany again, Atlanta, Kuwait, and Egypt, then I got out in 2010 and somehow convinced the admissions folks at Harvard to let me study there for a few years.  Now I live in Syracuse, NY working for the Institute for Veterans and Military Families.

To some reading this, that might seem like a great adventure.  To some it might seem miserable.  For me, at times, it’s been both.

We used to sing a cadence: “My home is Benning, Georgia, the land that God forgot.  The mud is 18 inches deep, the sun is burning hot…”  Let’s just say there’s a reason they send people there to prepare for war, and prepare we did.  But between exercises we did our best to mingle, too.  The people of the south are incredibly welcoming, and there’s something beautiful about their love for one another and the land they live on, but there was certainly some culture shock that came along with being a “Yankee” below the Mason-Dixon Line.  You’re not going to catch me driving a Ford F-150 any time soon.

Europe was amazing, of course.  On long weekends, my friends and I would visit the great capitals of the continent, go snowboarding in the Alps, or enjoy any of the numerous local festivals – Europeans can find an excuse to drink for anything.  In broken English, they would teach us the history of their parties – why, specifically, they were drinking this time – and we would do our best to communicate, becoming best of friends for a few hours.  It could be isolating, though.  Phone calls home were expensive, and my social circle consisted of the few other officers I served with, so there wasn’t much of an escape from the Army culture, even when travelling.

The Middle East offered more positives than one might expect.  Sure, I’ve seen my share of horror – but in the moments of calm, the culture of the region is truly one of beauty.  The hospitality provided in the midst of conflict, the kindness shown even to an invading army, and the pride of a people even through so much struggle, never ceased to amaze me.  The call to prayer at dawn and dusk, disturbing to some, became a pleasant sound to my ears.  The beauty of the Arabic script, the architecture of the mosques, and the love of a people for their faith all struck me, even in the midst of a war.

The most striking thing about the many places I have been is how much people love and revere their home – this often comes through in their music.  At West Point, my Portuguese language instructor was a Colonel in the Brazilian Army, and one day he brought in a guitar to sing for us in his native language.  As he sang, I heard in his voice a deep longing for his country.  It was, and remains, one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard.  From swaying back and forth atop tables in Munich’s beer halls belting out German drinking songs to singing “Good Old Rocky Top” in Nashville, or “Sweet Home Chicago” in a blues bar at home, people everywhere are filled with a deep pride for where they come from.

But I’ve also learned that it takes time to really develop that love of home.  It’s not just that you’re “from” somewhere.  People need roots, and roots take time to grow.  In watching my parents, my sister, and my childhood friends, I’ve learned that one’s perspective of home changes over time.  It’s almost as though people have a relationship with their city as they would with another person, and this relationship matures through the years.  As a child, you see the city as a child does, on the surface, almost the same as a tourist does.  You only see the big, bright shiny things – Michigan Avenue, the Bean, Navy Pier, the Taste, the museums, the zoos, etc.

I’ve also learned that each city, no matter what continent, no matter what culture, has a richness, a texture all its own.  As you age, you get past the façade and make it your own – you develop that relationship.  As with another person, you get to know each other over time – you learn new things about each other, you learn the nuances.  You learn the things you love in the cracks and crevices.  Your bar.  Your brunch place.  Your spot on the lakefront on a Sunday afternoon.  Like any relationship, if you don’t keep exploring, things become stale.

Unfortunately for me, because I have been away, my Chicago remains the Chicago of my childhood.  I know my city no better than a tourist.  When I come home, I go to Giordano’s and Portillo’s.  I go to the Field Museum and Brookfield Zoo.  I go to the Dairy Queen I where worked in high school and the Aurelio’s I went to as a kid.  When my friends from out east come home with me to visit, I take them to the Signature Room for a drink.  We go shopping on Michigan Avenue.  We do all of the clichés because I know no better.

I know my city, your city, my home, your home, no better than a teenager, no better than a visitor, and yet I call it home and I always will.  Until a year ago, I’ve had an Illinois driver’s license, Illinois license plates, and an I-Pass.  I paid Illinois State taxes (well, I filed tax returns, they didn’t tax my military pay).  New York State law finally won and I had to turn in my plates last year, but I fought it.  It was a sad day.

When I was in the Army, I missed many landmark Chicago events.  I was in the woods in Georgia when the White Sox won the World Series.  I woke up at 3AM in Germany to watch the Bears play in the Super Bowl on the Armed Forces Network (sans commercials to soften the blow, no less).  I followed Obama’s campaign from Baghdad via online news stories and returned to Germany just in time to mail my absentee ballot, waking up again in the middle of the night to watch him give his speech from Grant Park.  To be completely honest, I sat alone in my apartment, in the darkness, and cried.  History was being made at home, and I was stuck in Germany.  I wanted so badly to be there.

When someone thanks a veteran for their sacrifice, this is the sacrifice that they’re talking about (although they don’t really know it).  Risking life and limb, counterintuitively perhaps, is the easy part.  We get trained for that.  Forgoing a “home” is the hard part.  I’ve never had a brunch place.  I’ve never been in one place long enough to develop a “relationship” with a city.  Of course, we all make this decision to serve, and we do it with pride.  But when you think about veterans, think about more than someone getting shot at.  Think about the empty seat at Thanksgiving.  Think about the Blackhawks fan in Afghanistan who’s going to wake up in the middle of the night to watch this year’s playoffs.  That’s the hard part.

When many veterans come home to Chicago, they don’t have that relationship with their city and their families that you do.  They feel like an outsider.  They feel isolated once again, like this is just another duty station.  But this time, it feels worse.  It hurts even more, because this is the place that’s supposed to feel right, and it doesn’t.  It feels like they left and everything passed them by.  Like they don’t belong anymore.  They wonder why they bothered to come back.  Some wonder why they bothered to survive.  Did you know that 22 veterans commit suicide every day?  That’s one every 80 minutes.  Many in my new line of work are convinced that this feeling of isolation is what drives so many to take their lives.

You can help.  There’s a group called Team Red, White, & Blue (RWB), which helps connect veterans with the community through fitness and social events.  They’ve been phenomenally successful at fighting this isolation and welcoming veterans into the community.  There’s an active Team RWB chapter in Chicago.  If you want to learn more, go here or here.  Get involved yourself.  If you know a vet, get them involved.

If I’ve learned anything in 13 years, it’s that home is a beautiful thing.  Give Chicago’s veterans the welcome home that they deserve.

Dan Savage is a native of Chicago Heights, Illinois.  He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and Harvard University, a former infantry officer, and a veteran of the war in Iraq.  He currently serves as the Chief of Staff at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University.



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