Is it my right?

  • Published
  • By by Col. Stephen Lambert
  • 86th Airlift Wing vice commander
Back during the days of the Napoleonic Wars, England needed able-bodied men to fight its conflicts. It was common practice to search out the pubs in the early morning hours for drunks--who would be piled into carts and hauled down to the ships in port.

Many a sailors became an able-bodied seaman by waking up out of a drunken stupor and finding himself in the hold of a British warship...pressed into His Majesty's Royal Navy. Indeed, the act of "impressment" was a legal act of the King of England to garner new forces for the Royal Navy.

Today, things are very different. Every one of us is a volunteer who felt compelled to serve our nation in uniform. Most of us feel the tug of patriotism...and none of us were pressed into service. Inherent in that honorable act of volunteerism is a commitment to serve.

Exactly what does that mean? Service before self is one of our core values. These core values are our bedrock, the foundation that knits us together and sets us apart from most other, everyday jobs. We are volunteer professionals in the service of our nation, and the core values are our code of ethics and behavior. Most importantly, the core values inspire and engender trust and confidence between all of us: integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do.

Ultimately, we all are charged with defending the U.S. Constitution, a document that represents one of the grandest experiments of modern times. It guarantees freedoms and rights that are the envy of many people throughout the modern world. As Americans, we are fond of claiming those rights and we enjoy unprecedented freedoms because of them.

But where do our individual rights begin to intersect with the obligation to place service before self? Is it our right to pursue all manner of personal enjoyment and pleasure, even if that pursuit impacts our ability to serve? Is it possible we can be so focused on our rights that we start placing self before service? Where is that line? What happens when we willfully engage in hazardous activities or risky behaviors which could affect our ability to serve?

To me, service before self means we never place our Constitutional rights above our commitment to protect that very same Constitution. Practically speaking, what does that mean? Does riding a motorcycle or flying a paraglider or drinking alcohol mean we are placing self before service? No--it does not!

Does riding a motorcycle at excessive speeds, or flying a paraglider in risky weather conditions, or binge drinking alcohol in great quantities mean that we are placing self before service? Absolutely yes--in my opinion! What is the difference? When we place a premium on our own pleasure, we endanger our commitment to service before self.

Sometimes, protecting the rights, privileges, and freedoms we hold dear requires those of us who wear a uniform to "throttle back" order to guarantee our ability to continue to defend those rights, privileges, and freedoms. That is what service before self is about.

Recall that we are all volunteers and that we all signed up to the sacred commitment of protecting our Constitution. By doing so, we raised our hand and swore an oath to serve our country, and to uphold a set of core values.

The U.S. military is, hands down, the most trusted institution in America. More trusted than any company, church or political party. The reason for this is that our fellow citizens understand and value our commitment to protect the Constitution and they appreciate the fact that we live by a special set of standards (our core values) in order to preserve the strength of that commitment. Like it or not, they expect us to make personal sacrifices in order to guarantee the strength of that commitment.

When we choose to place self before service, we violate that commitment. For many of us, there may come a point where our personal desires and professional values may come into conflict. At some point, all of us have been or will be tempted to make a decision more for our own personal pleasure than for the good of our unit or our service.
What will take priority for you, when the time comes?