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September 2, 2014

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Notes of a Military Son

Comments (24)

During this week -- Military Families Week -- I am reminded of the valuable lessons I learned from my father about the humanity and importance of those who defend our freedom.

My Dad, Clifford Alexander, is a "first" in many ways, born in 1933, an only son of two civic-minded parents who were deeply immersed in their community, Harlem. His parents were both bright, and while neither had college degrees they knew that education was the road to their son's life success, and he graduated from Harvard College and Yale Law School -- an incredible success for anyone, much less an African-American of his generation.

He then made a career of leaping over racial barriers and breaking down doors. He served several presidents, and in 1977 President Carter asked Dad to serve in his Administration, as Secretary of the Army.

Dad was responsible for military operations worldwide, wielding civilian powers that were only surpassed by the President himself. His service as Army Secretary immersed him in a world in which there were clear chains of command and protocol, and fixed notions of rank and power.

In my father's eyes, his powers also carried responsibilities and courtesies, and he made it a point to always try to respect the dignity of everyone he encountered. He also deeply valued the ultimate commitment to country that the men and women who serve in our armed forces -- our nation's greatest patriots.

He was at the top of the chain of command, but he never saw himself as superior. It was quite the opposite; he knew that his service was equal to all who served -- one man among thousands in service to country.

Dad made the quality of life of the soldier his top priority. Every time he visited an Army base, he scheduled an hour at the base gym for a pick-up basketball game with the enlisted men and women. He broke it down: Running the court, in shorts, on the floor, there is no rank.

The lessons came all the time -- daily life, leading by example. I recall one weekend morning when he and I walked out the back door of our townhouse to pick up some groceries. As we walked through the alley, a homeless man approached us, and my father greeted him with a hearty "Good morning, sir."

I had seen soldiers and four-star generals offer Dad the same greeting in the halls of The Pentagon, and at Army bases around the world. After we moved along, unprompted, Dad reminded me of something: "He was somebody's baby one day."

Those words with that context remind me of the common humanity that my parents value so much. Their respect for others, and pride in our own identity as African-Americans, informed their -- and eventually my -- sense of self and commitment to service.

My family was immersed in a generation of change defined by public service and social activism. Our life was defined by my parents' work, and by the values inculcated by our day-to-day existence.

So in Military Families Week, I spend a little extra time thinking about those who commit themselves to country, so that we can live in these remarkable times today. Every day, I am thankful for our armed forces, and I pay particular tribute to the individual men and women serving all around the world.

Dad is 77 years old, and just as committed as ever. In the past few years, he carried on his own mission to speak out against the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy that was a blight on our nation. He articulated the fight as one over the basic human dignity of those who serve our nation with pride and distinction.

He won't be still, he won't be silent. I honor the individuals who wear The Uniform, as he taught me.

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