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Got your six: Honoring the men and women who have our back

Washington, May 2, 2019 Contact:
Originally published in the Washington Examiner

The saying "got your six" dates back to World War I, when fighter pilots would use "twelve o’clock" to indicate the front of their airplane and "six o’clock" to reference the rear of the aircraft. As a pilot heading into a brutal air battle, the six o’clock position is the most vulnerable to attacks from the enemy. It is your blind spot. Your weak point.

So, when another aviator says they "got your six," it means they have your back. They're watching out for you.

Today, the term "got your six" has come to encompass the creed of loyalty and looking out for each other that defines our military. It's part of the warrior ethos: "I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade." As we honor Military Appreciation Month this May, I believe it is an important reflection on the kind of men and women our warfighters are. 

Outside of two wounded warrior care centers in North Carolina and California stands a sculpture by John Phelps that depicts two Marines carrying an injured 1st Sgt. Bradley Kasal out of a firefight during the battle for Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004, known as the bloodiest battle in Iraq. Kasal had been attempting to provide aid to an ambushed Marine platoon. He ended up using his own wounded body as a shield to protect another injured Marine from grenade blasts before two of his buddies extracted him. The statue serves as a reminder, through a single moment frozen in time, of the kind of character our men and women in uniform demonstrate under fire. It is titled, "No man left behind."

This ethos of unflinching commitment extends to those whom our warfighters serve. When they volunteer to put on the uniform of the United States, they aren't doing it for recognition or gratitude. They're making a promise: When duty calls and the country needs someone to stand in the gap, they've got our six.

It is a choice they make, to shoulder the privilege and burden of service so that others might sleep in peace, work in freedom, and live without fear. If they are killed in the line of duty, they didn't lose their life — they gave it.

In some scenarios, our men and women in uniform even have the backs of those who hate them simply because it is the right thing to do. Most people don't think about it much, but we take care of the enemy.

I know this firsthand from serving as a combat surgeon in a hospital at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The surgical teams I worked with operated on our troops, civilians, and enemy combatants. We treated everyone the same in spite of the fact that some of those we took care of wanted us dead, simply because we were American. In addition to being trained as soldiers, our mission was to provide care to those who needed it, regardless.

Our troops go from being a hawk to a dove in seconds, a daunting challenge for anyone.

Today, less than 1% of U.S. citizens serve in our active-duty military, according to the Pew Research Center. But we each have a role to play in having their backs, while they fight to protect ours. It falls on our shoulders, as a country, to do a better job of empowering our service members, early in their careers, with access to opportunities, education, and support when they complete their military service.

Our veterans are not victims. They are some of the most driven individuals and experienced leaders that our nation has to offer. With so much to contribute, veterans are incredible value-adds to any organization, community, or company. Instead of simply thanking veterans for their service, ask them what they did. Let's do a better job both in our policies and in our society of treating our nation’s heroes as the assets to this country that they are, not just on the battlefield, but also once they're back home.

I often describe my deployment as the worst thing I ever had to do, but also the best thing I ever got to do because of the people I served with. This month is a tribute to them: to their ethos of unwavering courage and commitment, to the ones who hug their husbands and wives, their moms and dads, their kids, and go serve a country they believe is worth fighting for, who taste the dust, shoulder the heavy packs, make the tough choices, and put the mission before self.

When our country calls, they're the ones who strap on helmets and body armor and volunteer to put themselves between us and the enemy. They're the ones who’ve got our six.

Always remember; never forget.