My life has been blessed with amazing opportunities. One of those was joining the armed forces, specifically, the U.S. Air Force.
It was something I dreamed about since childhood. When he wasn’t home, I’d put on my dads BDU jacked, and his hat. I was the youngest of three brothers, all of whom joined the military. I served for 4 years as an avionics technician, maintaining 22 F-16s in the bitterly cold Eielson AFB, Alaska. My eldest, Allen, was a Corpsman in the Navy, which meant he was actually deployed with Marines, held that insignia, and belonged to Marine units. My other brother, Trey, is a chemical officer in the Army.
Between the three of us, we covered each of the armed services. The family tradition does not stop there. My father is a retired Army Warrant Officer. My mother was an E-6 in the Army. My father’s father was a Korean War and Vietnam era veteran. His wife was a Navy nurse. My grandfather was also in the army, as was his father, and his. Between all of us there are 4 Purple Hearts and countless medals.
Since setting foot on American soil, a McAfee has protected the freedoms and value of this beautiful nation in some uniform, at some post, for some time, in some way. The heritage has affected my very worldview, my sense of security, my obligation to take care of others, and most notably, my willingness and visible desire to lead. We’re a few, a happy few, a band of McAfees.
Within years of honorably serving my country I converted to the Catholic Church. I can’t tell you which meant more in the moment: graduating basic training on the 4th of July, or confirmation on Easter Sunday.
I’ve noticed many similarities between the military and the Church since my conversion, many of which have given me a deeper appreciation for the other. One sticks out in particular: the desire to serve, and the familial bonds between families within.
Each soldier joins the military expecting to serve; we know what we have signed up for and are willing to give it all for the cause. We call it “signing the dotted line.” I can still remember the expression and words of my drill instructor the day we finished warrior week and were handed our Airman’s coin:
“Expect to deploy. Expect it. Expect to go to Afghanistan or Iraq, maybe even Iran if they don’t wise up. You might be working on jets, or you might be working in the clinic. I don’t care if you’re working in finance – you better expect to deploy. I’m telling you this to that you remember the training you’ve received here. I have countless airmen who email or call me to tell me “thank you” for preparing them, because they deployed weeks after getting to their first duty station. So remember this week, remember the work you’ve put in, remember the feeling you have now and why you joined. You’re now United States Airmen, and I’m damn proud of each of you.”
They then played the national anthem and gave us each our coin. Only weeping followed from the 30 or so men in my Flight.
Then, 10 months later, after I got out of tech school, I was sent to Alaska, to the mighty 354th Fighter Squadron. We were told we were deploying in the Fall; it was April. Come August, we were told it would be the winter. Come winter, we were told that out 22 F-16s were being sent off, 2×2 to be modified to shoot lasers, not bombs. We turned into a training squadron. I never deployed. My friends in our brother unity, the 355th, were A-10 maintainers. They deployed and redeployed. Both of my brothers deployed.
This hung on me for some time, ever after I got out of the military. I mean, I was upset that I never deployed. Rather than play Call of Duty, I played Top Gun; training.
It was something that my father and my father in-law told me during my service years, though, that expelled this thought from my mind: “Someone has to guard the base, someone has to keep us safe at home, and I sleep better knowing you’re doing that every day.”
Genuinely, I’ll remember those words for the rest of my life. Truly, those words apply to our lives as Christians.
We sometimes get the false idea that if we don’t act radically, we aren’t contributing. Or, we get the idea that suffering is the only way to serve. Those can be extreme cases. More often, though, we get vocational envy, where we don’t think we’re doing as much as a priest, those in religious communities, monks, saints, martyrs, etc.
We think that if we don’t deploy, we didn’t serve. It’s a disastrous and restrictive ideology.
The truth is that we all contribute to the service of and the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Truly, the laity alone have the ability to infiltrate the world; the laity are the “boots on the ground.”
The Council Fathers of Vatican II put it this way:
Since the laity, in accordance with their state of life, live in the midst of the world and its concerns, they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ.
The significance of the laity doesn’t stop there. Vatican II also tells us that the success of the mission of the Church depend on the service of the laity:
As sharers in the role of Christ as priest, prophet, and king, the laity have their work cut out for them in the life and activity of the Church. Their activity is so necessary within the Church communities that without it the apostolate of the pastors is often unable to achieve its full effectiveness. (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 10)
Baptism as our commission and graduation:
The laity derive the right and duty to the apostolate from their union with Christ the head; incorporated into Christ’s Mystical Body through Baptism and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through Confirmation, they are assigned to the apostolate by the Lord Himself. (AA, 3)
And our uniform is this:
Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph. 6:13-17, RSV)
The body of Christ is big and there’s room for everyone to serve. There’s so many ways to serve and endless opportunities.
What I learned, is that my part in the Body of Christ is unique, as is yours. I stopped trying to be like someone else. I stopped envying the vocation of others, their holiness, and even had to stop envying the popularity of other Catholics. To let God do what He wants through me, I simply started realizing that God has big plans for me, and I cannot hold myself up to the saints and other living moguls as if I had to be them in order to be great. God makes me great, not me.
So I’ll tell you this: expect to serve; expect it.
Go tell a veteran that you appreciate them; we never tire of this. Happy Veterans Day.