Look to the right horizon

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Bryan T. Martin
  • Staff Judge Advocate, 42nd Air Base Wing
I'm not Ulysses S. Grant, and neither are you. Let me explain how this profound insight changed my life. Just inside the doorway of my office sets a famous photograph of General Grant. It's the one that looks exactly like the comedian, Robin Williams. I'm not big on collecting things, least of all pictures of people I'm not related to; but when I saw that photo in a gift shop, it spoke to me. You know what I mean - it was one of those rare pictures that makes you think really hard. 

I had just finished a series of books on the Civil War, and had become a fan of General Grant's. I was amazed at his quiet confidence in himself. Before the Civil War, he experienced times of personal failure. Throughout the war, he endured many serious allegations. They included accusations of being a drunk, not only off duty, but even during battles. Superior officers, rivals, and newspapers called him incompetent, and even accused him of being a reckless butcher of his own men. Careful historians have shown that far from being a butcher, General Grant's tactics may have saved many lives in the long run, and many of his worst moments were greatly exaggerated. Nonetheless, even General Grant admitted he ordered attacks he regretted for their cost in human life. 

But no matter what anyone rightly or wrongly thinks of General Grant's habits or tactics, he is arguably second only to President Lincoln among those responsible for the survival of our union. Yet only four years after the close of the Civil War, General Grant was in the White House running what many experts consider to be among the worst administrations in American history. Those close to President Grant described him as seemingly unable to comprehend the fundamental issues of government. And it didn't get any better - he died a poor man, the impetus behind the Presidential pension that has been given to every President since. 

There are enough lessons from General Grant's life to fill volumes, but I only want to discuss one here. It's actually a lesson in contrast and requires the help of the countless souls General Grant commanded. His life encompassed amazing accomplishments and responsibilities, yet he is famous for only one aspect: what he did in uniform in four years. I already mentioned how important he was to the preservation of the Union, but the Union armies were composed of vast numbers of unknown heroes, any one of whom could have impacted the war for the worse had they not done their duty. 

And there is the start of my point. Very few of those men are remembered by name for what they did in uniform - most are not remembered by anyone at all. We can only hope that during and immediately after their lives, they were loved and appreciated by someone who remembered them for a great accomplishment of some sort, which likely had nothing to do with their military service. On the other hand, and unlike General Grant, many surely went on to business success, political accomplishments, or healthy middle-aged years (General Grant only lived to 63). Many were probably wonderful parents, teachers, community leaders, volunteers, sons, husbands, or friends. They were famous in someone's eyes, but not the military historians'. And to be that way, they had to reserve enough of themselves from their military roles (including their very lives, of course) to have the time and resources to be such people. Their horizons were not limited to the military careers immediately before them; their hopes were directed to a further horizon. 

So what's that have to do with you? Most of us will not long be remembered for what we did in the Air Force. Destiny may call some to the right place at the right time to bestow military greatness on a few of us, but we have little control over that. I'm sure General Grant would admit, as many senior leaders do today, that he did not plan to become what he was; he just did his duty when he saw it. When you look at the photograph on my desk, you can see in his eyes that he knew very well that his moment had come. He had found the one thing he was truly meant for, and no criticism or past failure could take it from him. Unfortunately, he subsequently allowed himself to be carried along to a role he was not meant for. I think he knew that too. 

We all come into the Air Force hoping to do great things. Unfortunately, many of us confuse the proper execution of our duties with a warped perspective of life, focusing all our energies and efforts on a horizon no further out than a particular military rank or job. In the meantime, we allow our family lives, our health, and our preparations for life after the Air Force to decay to the point that we lose everything other than our uniformed identity. 

And so when destiny fails to bring any lasting glory, as it almost always does, not only are the nearsighted warriors disillusioned with their anonymous existences, but may also be alone, broken down, and without the tools to successfully do what they were really created to do. 

So here's the lesson: stop obsessing over your career. Do your duty, and be prepared when and if your moment to shine comes. But don't lose sight of the farther horizon, because that may be where your glory lay. Your real contribution may be to leave behind children who were deeply and positively impacted by your presence and love, to serve the needs of your community once you have the time and the resources (we have a really nice retirement benefit) to make more than a token impact, or to move on to a calling for which you were better suited all along. A military career only lasts a third of the typical adult life span. In a way, it's a training period for what we're going to do when we "grow up." 

This view changed my life because it changed how I spend every moment of my day. I seek out work experiences that will better equip me for what I believe to be my post-Air Force calling. I exercise with ruthless consistency, even if it means I have to creatively accommodate some of my deadlines. I'm home for dinner every night to invest in the lives of my wife and children (then make it up early in the morning when no one wants to see me). 

Why? Because I have to continue to succeed at life when the Air Force is only a fading memory. So do you. General Grant's moment came in uniform. When it did, he knew it. If you don't feel that way, it may not be your moment. It may lie on a farther horizon. Just have fun waiting it. Who knows? Maybe I will be a General Grant. But I don't need to be.