The burden of service

The burden of service

To the editor: 

The Alexandria Police Department Suicide Memorial that was unveiled late last month raised a memory of my walk across New Hampshire, stopping for two or three events each day, in a run for president. My first event was at the Brattleboro Retreat for mental health on the border with Vermont. 

I had heard about the large wall within the Retreat that was covered with the unit patches of veterans and still-serving military members who had completed their stay. But there I also came upon another large wall covered with police and fire department patches of those from across America who also serve our nation. The director told me of a local police chief who drove his squad car to the Retreat and asked to be admitted before he died by suicide. 

Nor have I forgotten my first Memorial Day event as a congressman in front of five monuments, one for each of our military services. Alongside them stood two relatively new monuments: for our firefighters and police officers after the 9/11 attack had seared into America’s consciousness the sacrifice and bravery of these men and women who had served us that day, every day, their sacrifice equal to that of those who serve overseas. 343 New York Fire Department members died that day – and another 343 have died since from 9/11-related illnesses. 

As a congressman and afterward, I’d visit the nearby penitentiary each Veterans Day to speak with its approximately 150 incarcerated veterans. After the most moving of any ceremony I’ve observed, then sitting and trading stories with them, I saw the carnage of harsh wars that – while incurred on battlefields – was still endured by those incarcerated. The leader of its Vietnam Veterans of America chapter is there for life, having returned home on drugs and undiagnosed for posttraumatic stress disorder, he awakened one day with a person dead next to him, not remembering why. 

I lost by suicide two of the 10 Iraq/Afghanistan war veterans I mentored in my district while a congressman, in contrast to one death when I deployed to Afghanistan. We have our unforgiveable Abu Ghraib prisons and the unfathomable crimes done to George Floyd and others, crying for more accountability to be done. 

But whether with a SEAL team on the ground in Afghanistan and then in the air, or later in a squad car on late weekend nights through tenuous city-parts of my congressional district, I also saw the unremitting pressure of the unknown suddenly become potential danger. Yet, that heightened pressure, sometimes requisite fear, cannot become the sole driver of how one’s service is done. 

This is why the two walls at Brattleboro Retreat – and now Alexandria’s new police memorial – need to remind us daily of what women and men in our seven services endure internally, whether it’s the SEAL who steps out at 0200 for a mission or the police officer and firefighter responding to a call at 2 a.m. Their service, like America, can be contradictory at times, but almost always, of sincere purpose and selfless sacrifice. 

-Joe Sestak, former U.S. congressman, Alexandria