Service: Ask yourself what it means to you

FORT DIX, N.J. -- Imagine yourself asking a military veteran from your hometown, "What does service mean to you?"

Chances are you'll get an earful in return.

In the Air Force, we have the core value of service before self. However, before anyone thinks this is a lecture on core values -- hold on. There's a lot more to explain.

First, have you ever left a store or a restaurant and wondered afterward, "They really could use a course in customer service!"

Chances are you were probably right, but in turn those people who treated you poorly may have in their minds what they did was provide you with good customer service.

Whose perception is right or wrong? The answer lies mostly in the opinion of the recipient, but I've always believed you should treat people how you would want to be treated. And I don't know anyone who wants to be treated poorly.

The truth is the term "service" has many meanings, but in return I believe those meanings all blend together. To me, service is about loyalty, hard work, dedication, initiative, humility and sacrifice to name a few things. It means sometimes putting other people's needs ahead of your own. It means truly caring about what you do, what you say, and how that affects those around you.

I remember as a teenager I'd take jobs mowing grass, raking leaves and shoveling snow that would take hours upon hours to complete and often I'd get paid little or nothing. No problem. It was the way my parents raised me -- to think about helping your fellow human beings without asking for anything in return.

I also recall more recently when I met a Vietnam veteran who lost both of his legs in the war. I talked with him and asked him why he was still so dedicated to supporting troops and remembering the military heroes of the past. In a spirited yet soulful response, he said, "I may have lost my legs, but I still have my heart. I'm proud to have served in the Army. Now, I do whatever I can."

As another example, for the past 15 years, I've been married to a woman who has given me three children, saw me leave on a half-dozen deployments, numerous temporary duty assignments, and work late more than once. Did she have to put up with that? Why does she stay and how come I deserve someone like her? Only my wife could answer those questions, but I will say I'm thankful for her every day.

The same idea holds true for children, parents and friends who know you, are loyal to you, and help you when you need it. What is it in your relationship with them that keeps you dedicated to them?

It's through all of this where we must understand the deeper meaning of service. It's not about what people do or where they work, it's about who they are.

I've thoroughly enjoyed my military career to this point and will continue to enjoy it until I retire some years from now. There have been millions before me who have "served" in the military and millions more who "served" along side them in families and through many, many support functions. I've given my decade and a half of years in service to my country that I'll never get back, but am proud that I've had the opportunity to be in "the service."

Although it's meant giving up on dreams I may have had outside of the military, knowing what "service" means to me has been an important foundation block in my life. So, if you find yourself wanting to ask that question about "service," look inside and first understand what it means to you. Only then will you understand why it's important to so many others like me and that military veteran who could give you an earful.