Last week, I sat down for coffee with a recent college graduate. The young man, whom I’ll call “K,” worked his way through ROTC, took a commission as a second lieutenant in the Army, and now serves in an Army engineer company.
K is the son of immigrants, a first-generation American. He’s a student of American history, especially the founding era. And he understands as well as anyone I know the principles that animate the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. What’s more, he believes in those principles to the core of his being.
When K learned that his company would no longer be in the rotation for deployment to Afghanistan, he was disappointed. He has a strong desire to serve his country where he’s most needed, and he believes that’s on the front lines. He has thoughtfully considered and is willing to accept the possibility that he might make the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
So K is now contemplating leaving his engineer company and accepting another opportunity in a different role, as commanding officer of a medevac unit. If he does, he will be off the engineering path, a setback to his post-Army career plans. This is a big deal for a young man who wants to start a family someday — not to mention the risks inherent in serving in combat. Yet K’s commitment to serving his country is greater than his desire to advance his personal objectives.
At the same time K makes his decision, elected leaders in Washington have demonstrated a frustrating inability to put aside their personal and partisan goals for the greater good of the country.
The debt-ceiling debate is just part of a bigger fiscal problem that must be addressed immediately to ensure America’s fiscal pre-eminence in the world. Yet this generational challenge somehow doesn’t inspire many members of Congress to reach deep inside and think big.
The current environment isn’t conducive to profiles in courage. Elected officials might know the right thing to do, but they fear it might result in a primary from their own party, or negative television ads from the other. Some take the risk; many don’t. Meanwhile, one of the greatest challenges in our history remains unmet.
This is about leadership. Some equate leadership with titles, honors and the public spotlight. But those things haven’t made America what it is.
What made our country great is the sacrifice of men and women like K, who put their country above themselves. And yes, some have made the ultimate sacrifice. That is leadership.
Our elected officials would do well to consider the sacrifices being made every day by men and women in uniform. Next to those, taking some political criticism from one’s own political party — or even losing an election — seems pale in comparison.
Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book, “The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care.”