Everyone shows appreciation in different ways. Whether it’s a simple “thank you,” or even just enjoying the freedoms given to you by brave veteran men and women, be sure to take a moment to reflect on what they truly have done for us.
Why did you decide to serve?
My oldest brother Todd decided to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. Unfortunately, Todd died in a car accident during his Plebe (freshman) year. At that young age of 13, I chose to finish what he started and set out to attend West Point after high school. Having a clear goal in my teens focused my attention on athletics and the extracurricular activities that would ensure I qualified to attend the military academy. It also helped my grieving process by providing me something to strive for that was bigger than myself.
My parents always had a deep respect for America, and they passed that down to my three brothers and me. But service wasn’t a family discussion or a “right of passage” until Todd led the way. He always led the way and, even in death, continues to provide us with a guiding light. My service to the country was ultimately a service to Todd’s memory, but the result was a lifetime worth of lessons, friendships, and experiences that I would have never had without that loss.
Can you speak to the bond of brotherhood that is developed with fellow veterans?
Humans naturally develop lifelong bonds through hardship, and there are few hardships I have experienced, before or after the Army, that compare to combat. You see things you don’t want to see, hear things you don’t want to hear, and you encounter the worst (and sometimes the best) of human behavior. Similar to how it’s challenging to understand the love a parent has for their child until you experience it for yourself, describing the brotherhood between veterans is equally difficult. You need to live it to “get it.”
However, I can tell you that I have made bonds with other veterans that can never be broken, and I am honored to be a part of a group that served their fellow citizens without regard to what was in it for them. I think that’s what makes veterans unique and special.
How did you stay in touch with your family?
Skype and AOL instant messenger (remember that) were the main ways I kept in touch with my loved ones. My mother would also write long letters to keep me in the loop on what was occurring on the homefront. Often we thank the veteran for their service, but it’s military spouses and families that deserve most of the credit. I always knew where I was and what I was doing, but now as a young parent, I couldn’t imagine going to sleep at night wondering if tomorrow might bring an unwelcome knock on the door. Thank you, mom. Thank you, dad. I love you.
Was there something special you did for “good luck”?
I am Jewish, but I was given various sacred medals from multiple faiths by friends, family, and even strangers. I wore each of them during my combat tours on the necklace that held my dog tags. I figured I couldn’t go wrong by hedging, plus it comforted me in times of darkness. I came home without any visible scars and brought every one of my men home alive too. Coincidence? You decide!
How did people entertain themselves?
In my experience, Combat was spans of boredom sprinkled with brief and intense life-changing experiences. Exercise, books, and X-Box were great ways to pass the hours. Believe it or not, there’s loads of time to fill during a deployment. I learned how to speak Italian and was able to do sets of 20 pull-ups with 45 lbs weights strapped around my waist. That was awesome. I wish I could still do that!
What did you do when on leave?
There’s no drinking allowed when you’re deployed, so when I was on leave, I saw as many friends as possible, drank good beer, and ate delicious food.
Do you recall the day your service ended? What did you do in the days and weeks afterward?
I vividly remember the day my service ended. I handed off command of my troop of 120 cavalry soldiers that I had grown to love like family, turned in my gear, and out processed from the Army all on the same day. Each of those events is painful in its own right (the Army is very particular with its gear’s condition and cleanliness), but, combined, they created a day almost impossible to forget. I went from being Captain Prince to Jesse all within 24 hours. The weeks afterward were spent with family and friends, figuring out what life outside the service would look like for me. It wasn’t the most comfortable transition for me, and I know others just like me also struggled in silence. The loss of identity and camaraderie that you have built-in when you serve is suddenly gone, and you’re surrounded by people who “don’t get it.” (see my previous comments above). But I am fortunate to have had a support system of people that refused to give up on me, and I am grateful for them every day for how far I have come over the last decade.
What did you go on to do as a career after service?
I started in the medical sales space because I didn’t know what I loved to do yet, and the opportunity to get a job was one I couldn’t turn down. In retrospect, I wish I spent my first few years as a civilian back in school, getting my master’s degree, but that was not my path. I eventually found a passion for real estate investing and have focused my attention on that ever since.
Did your military experience influence your thoughts about war or about the military in general?
Bottom line upfront – I didn’t know what I didn’t know before joining the military. I learned that the Army consists of the best the country has to offer and is a subsection of every single type of person you could imagine. I grew up in an upper-middle-class bubble where everyone looked the same, acted the same, and thought the same. It was a nice place to grow up, but my service opened my eyes to the vast and incredible country we have in a way that I probably wouldn’t have seen if I followed the standard path of my childhood peers. My thinking about war is simple – waging it should never be a first response, only a last resort.
How did your service and experiences affect your life?
Everything in my life, from the moment I raised my right hand and swore to support and defend the constitution, was affected by my service. Those who serve may not have obvious transferable skills to the untrained eye of a civilian. Still, the work ethic and problem-solving skills you gain in the military stick with you for a lifetime and can significantly benefit our country if appropriately put to action. All entrepreneurs need a never quit attitude, and I don’t think I would have had the stick-to-it-iveness to start HappyNest without my experiences.
Do you think there are better ways our culture and society can care for veterans?
Fix the VA and fully pay for every combat veteran’s post-service educational pursuits. We wrote the country a blank check up to and including our lives. Full education benefits and lifetime healthcare are great ways to say thank you, in addition to saying “thank you.”
I truly believe that educating our veterans without leaving them with the burden of massive student debt will undoubtedly benefit the country and the economy in the long run.
If there was one thing civilians should empathize better with veterans — what would it be?
Understanding the invisible wounds of war is a double-edged sword. It has led to an increase in awareness and treatment programs but has misinformed some well-meaning civilians into believing we are damaged goods.
Please don’t treat us like we’re broken. Veterans are one of America’s greatest assets and not a liability.