Veterans Day is oftentimes thought an old man’s holiday. We’ve all seen it before—the TV stories depicting senior citizens, saluting the flag in their military attire as bagpipes play in the background.
Many veterans are actually young—and they are among us at the University of West Georgia.
Every year the United States observes Veterans Day on November 11th to honor those who have served in the armed forces. These men and women endure extreme conditions and separation from their families to protect our nation’s interests.
Every veteran has a story. I was privileged to talk to two veterans currently enrolled at UWG about their time in the military.
Staff Sergeant Jeremy Weir, United States Army
Douglasville native Jeremy Weir, 29, is a nine-year Army veteran who is currently serving in the National Guard. Weir enlisted in 2003.
After graduating from high school, Weir attended the University of West Georgia for a year before making the decision to enlist in the Army.
Weir says that his family influenced his decision to join the army.
“My stepdad was in the Army and he was a police officer when he got out of the military,” says Weir. “I always looked up to him, he was a positive male role model in my life.”
In 2005, Weir was deployed to Afghanistan. Afghanistan was a life-changing experience.
“It was an eye opener,” says Weir. “To that point the only place that I had been outside of the U.S. was Canada.”
Weir says that the citizens of Afghanistan are different than how they are portrayed in the media.
“They [the Afghani people] would give you the shirt off their back if they can,” says Weir. “They are like that with everyone.”
Weir says that the average Afghani citizen—not the Taliban—are peaceful people.
“They just want peace.” says Weir.
Culture shock was one of Weir’s biggest challenges in Afghanistan. He explains that the soldiers were clueless about the Afghani culture when they arrived. Weir says that the lack of culture training impacted the high fatality rate in 2007.
Weir suggests that soldiers in both Afghanistan and Iraq at the time lacked culture training.
“It can cause friction because you are working closely with a lot of Afghan fighters and the Iraqis,” says Weir. “If you don’t really understand their culture it can be hard to be in that environment. But that was just the way it was.”
After Afghanistan, Weir briefly returned to the United States and then served in Iraq. Although Weir describes most of his experience in Iraq as ‘great,’ tragedy struck.
“Our task force lost 11 guys in that 16 months,” says Weir. “Any life lost is terrible—but comparatively, we were doing well.”
As a young veteran, he is concerned about the fate of future soldiers.
“I see the level of patriotism and sense of duty in this country slowly going down with every passing year,” says Weir. “I just hope if people never feel the sense of duty or patriotism that they need to serve their country to appreciate the people who did.”
Recently, Weir met several World War II veterans. “They are just some of the most amazing people because the sense of duty and patriotism that, that generation had was just awe inspiring,” says Weir. “You see these guys and you hear stories about when they saw their country be attacked by the Japanese it instilled that they had to go fight, there was no choice.”
Weir says that the protection of the U.S. military is something that young people may take for granted. “That’s something that this younger generation can take heed of an understand that there is nothing wrong with expecting your government to protect you, take care of you, but you have to realize that eventually if we run out of people who are willing to support the government, the government is not going to be able to support us.”
Weir works full time as a Correctional Officer with the United States Bureau of Prisons, is a husband and father of two and attends UWG, where is a criminology major. He plans to continue his career in government after graduation.
Corporal Mary Lewallen, United States Marine
Mary Lewallen, 25, always knew she was going to be in the military. She came from a military family. Her mother, father, grandparents and brothers all served.
“I always knew that I wanted to do something in the military,” says Lewallen. “That’s just who I was.”
Lewallen began preparation for a military career by joining the Sea Cadets, a non-profit organization. Through the Sea Cadet program she studied in Maryland and Russia.
Lewallen was originally enrolled at UWG, but was also joint enrolled at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the school’s Air Force ROTC program. After two successful years at Georgia Tech and a full semester at UWG, she enrolled in flight school.
Unfortunately flight school did not work out for Lewallen. With her dream of service still intact, she eventually decided to join the Marines. She was 19 when she enlisted.
“I never thought I was going to be a Marine. I always thought that I was going to be a pilot, or a search and rescue swimmer in the Coast Guard. But joining the Marines, turned out to be the best decision I ever made.”
Lewallen trained at Parris Island, which she describes as “seven layers of hell”. For Lewallen, boot camp was a cathartic and transforming experience.
“I loved it,” says Lewallen. “I loved every second of boot camp, you create a family bond with people that you will know for the rest of your life, because you went through hell together.”
Lewallen spent ten months in Afghanistan and one month in Kyrgyzstan. Afghanistan was scary still, she says the people of Afghanistan were kind, generous and trusting.
“The people of Afghanistan are like people from any nation, they’re predominately one religion, they are farmers, they are simple, and they just want to live their lives. For six months I lived with one of those families, and it was the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my entire life.
“The Taliban has come into Afghanistan and is killing them. It’s not the people of Afghanistan hurting us. It’s the Taliban. A lot of people don’t understand that.”
Lewallen made history when she was chosen to be part of the military’s first engagement team. Prior to 2009, females were not allowed to go near the front lines.
“Women had never gone into combat before,” says Lewallen. “They didn’t have joint grunt units. Females were never seen on the front lines, that’s just now changed.”
Presently Lewallen is a junior studying anthropology at UWG. Once she has attained her degree, she hopes to work for the government again.
Lewallen is proud to be a veteran. She enjoys offering guidance to other young people about military careers.
“If you talk to a veteran, 9 out of 10 times you’re going to get honest opinions and straight answers.”