The following essay took first prize in the inaugural contest sponsored by the Admiral Callaghan Society.
The award ceremony was held April 26, 2012, in the Carlin Commons.
A Nation of Heroes
By Jack Keane ‘13
I volunteered for Marin County’s Search and Rescue team at the age of fifteen, after a year-long selection and training process. The mission of the all-volunteer Marin SAR unit is to provide a life-saving service for the northern California community. I was attracted to the team by its extensive mission history of operations in and out of Marin County, at all different elevations and levels of backcountry exposure. From working with the Coast Guard to riding helicopters in the Sierras, Marin County Search and Rescue enticed my sense of adventure and I signed up without hesitation.
My first official call-out came on a cold and rainy day in Butte County. It was what the unit called a “cold search,” because a despondent man had gone missing for 12 days in rugged terrain during the area’s harshest storm of the winter season. After thirty hours of fruitless searching, my team was satisfied with the effort we had put in on the cliffs. We packed the gear for the trek back to the command post. Soaked, grimy, and sleepless, we stumbled off the mountain and back to the vehicles. As my numb fingers struggled to unlace boots and reorganize gear, an elderly woman approached me and tapped my shoulder. She looked me in the eye and spoke but two words. “Thank you,” she said. Two simple words from the mother of the missing man, and they would have a profound impact on my life and my definition of service.
Search and rescue was no longer about the gear, the mountains, or the helicopter rides. What that woman said to me, that the day of my first search, made me understand why certain teammates of mine have been a part of Marin County Search and Rescue for over thirty years, selflessly dedicating their lives to aid their fellow citizens. I choose to dedicate my time to search and rescue to provide closure to the family, friends, and community of the man lost twelve days in a storm. I choose to make sacrifices so that I might save the life of the skier who got lost in freezing conditions in the Sierra mountains. Search and rescue is about making the country’s untamed wilderness a less cruel, unforgiving place. The sincerity of the woman I met forever changed me into a person willing to take risks for the safety and health of others. If I do not step up to the challenge, who else will? For all I know, I may be the very next subject of a rescue operation, if one of my own adventures goes awry. Who will be willing to take risks for my health and safety?
Thoughts like these that bounced around in my head after that first search, as the diesel engine of the Marin SAR vehicle rumbled to life and the truck pulled away from the command post and back toward my suburban home. From the side view mirror I could see the elderly woman standing next to the command post, waving as we descended into the fog.
Just as that mother did with me, a nation has an obligation to express gratitude towards the men and women who put themselves in harm’s way in service to their country. In President Kennedy’s inaugural address, he instructed the American people , “Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.” And since that day, there are countless examples of individuals who have fulfilled Kennedy’s plea and committed themselves to a life of self-sacrifice and service for the greater good of the nation. In the end, however, for good people to continue as volunteers in service for their country, the nation must respond with a consistent gratitude, in words and in public policy.
One example of an American dedicated to service is my family friend, Blair Alexander. A colonel in the National Guard Reserves, Alexander enrolled in West Point Academy in 1977, during the wave of national anti-military sentiment following the Vietnam War. He went on to serve in Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan, and on the Oakland police department’s S.W.A.T. team.
Alexander has experienced what it is like to be reviled for public service and what it is like to be appreciated for doing one’s duty for community and country. One recent Christmas morning, Alexander opened the door to his East Bay home to find over 100 pieces of hate mail and death threats on his doorstep. Oakland’s Occupy movement and the group Anonymous had left the letters at the home where he lived with his wife and two young children.
In contrast to that experience, upon his return from his tour in Iraq, Alexander landed in the Dallas international airport to transfer from the military plane to a commercial airliner that would take him home to the Bay Area. Lining two hundred yards of the terminal, ecstatic civilians waved flags, threw confetti, and cheered in support of Colonel Alexander and his fellow servicemen. For the first time in his career, Alexander believed his service to his country was appreciated by his fellow citizens.
What the United States of America must do is find a balance between encouraging its citizens to serve while always responding with gratitude for those who do. Perhaps we must remember the sacrifices of the dedicated servicemen and servicewomen who have answered the call of duty before delivering personal attacks to their doorstep. This balance can be achieved by starting with two simple, sincere words: “thank you.” Like the mother of the man missing in Butte County who changed my outlook on service, a genuine expression and a concrete policy of gratitude will make us a nation of heroes.