Why do you serve?

by Lt. Col. Tiffany Warnke
86th Civil Engineering Squadron commander

Sept. 11 was the day that changed the world forever as we saw the raw destruction and peril of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon brought into our homes via the television.

This year on 9/11, I had the honor and pleasure of standing before a formation of emergency and first responders (fire department, medical and law enforcement personnel) at a retreat and remembrance ceremony. As I stood there and watched the flags descend the flag pole and a wreath laid at the foot of the staff, I contemplated what it is that motivates an individual to be a first responder. What is it that drives one to dive into dire situations and put oneself into harm’s way for the good of someone they have never met? Why do they serve?

A number of answers ran through my mind. Maybe it’s simply the adrenaline rush one gets from the intense nature of a kinetic experience or operation. Maybe it is the triumphant satisfaction obtained when one’s actions contribute to the rescue of another or the justice and revenge in apprehending an individual who has committed a crime. Maybe it’s a little bit of martyrdom, satisfaction gained by knowing that someone must bear the burden to respond and serve.

But to really answer the question, I decided I had to look at myself. Why do I serve in the U.S. Air Force? At first thought, my answer would be patriotism — because I’m a patriot! The dictionary defines patriotism as “devotion to one’s country.” I have to say that definition doesn’t do justice to what I thought patriotism was. I guess too often patriotism is erroneously aggrandized by whether one gets goose bumps when they hear a beautiful rendition of the national anthem, or whether one gets a lump in their throat as a flag passes by. Right after 9/11, it seemed the commercialism of patriotism was defined by the number of flags on display at one’s home or on their vehicle. In retrospect, yes, I am a patriot, but it doesn’t fully explain why I serve.

So what is it then? Well, I would say our service has to stem from more than a simple devotion to one’s country; it has to be accompanied by a deep willingness to put the interest of the nation, the common good, beyond one’s own. It has to be motivated by a willingness to give and not only just take. It has to be fueled by a deep respect and belief in something. Something like loyalty. Loyalty is defined as “an (indisputable) feeling of strong support for someone or something.” Hmmm, maybe now it’s making more sense.

Maybe we serve because patriotism is fueled by loyalty. That is, loyalty and respect for the laws that guide the people of our nation. Loyalty to all the principles and beliefs we hold dear, to include equality and basic human rights. Loyalty to the specific words in the national anthem as well as those recited in the Pledge of Allegiance, but most importantly, loyalty to the people of our great nation and their longing for happiness. Yes, patriotism and loyalty together can almost explain why I serve.

Only one thing is missing, one final ingredient — the people. I realize now that I serve because of my love for people — those I serve with and those I serve for. It is the missing link. Dr. Kent M. Keith famously stated, “People are illogical, unreasonable and self-centered; Love them anyway.” Most people who are willing to serve our country do just that. It’s undeniably what motivates them.

So why do I serve? It all boils down to patriotism, driven by loyalty, bound by a love for people. There is no other feeling like it. Ask yourself why you serve. I hope this answer is the same for you.

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