Taking off one uniform and putting on another: Veterans Day 2016

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Adrian Hale

Adrian Hale, a former Marine who served two tours in Afghanistan, presented the following address at the Veterans Day ceremony held on Nov. 11 in Yale’s Hewitt Quadrangle.

Good morning.                             

I just want to take a brief moment to thank President Salovey and Secretary Goff-Crews, for holding this ceremony this afternoon.       

And Dean Sodi for recommending me to give today’s remarks and affording me the opportunity to address you all.

I also want to thank all the distinguished guests in attendance for their service to our country and for attending today’s veteran’s day ceremony: thank you.

See related story: Campus events honor veterans and ROTC

It is a particular honor to be standing before you all this afternoon seeing as my presence at this institution is an anomaly within itself. I grew up in Rochester, NY, in inner city America, a place not much different from New Haven. I was born into a home where no one had completed high school — and although this was a reality, which I had no hand in creating, it affected my life nonetheless. The very reason I stand before you today, a senior and combat veteran at 27 years old, is because given the circumstances and conditions I was born into, being here at 18 would have been close to impossible.

 However, in spite of these obstructive conditions that I had to confront growing up, I am standing here today, and I’m here because I have been blessed to have experienced a series of interventions in my life that provided me with an alternative direction — in contrast to the one I was predisposed to, which would have lead me to the street corner, a prison cell, or the cemetery.

One of those intervening factors was the United States Marine Corps. At only 18 years old I would become a Marine Corps recruit, standing on the historic yellow footprints on Parris Island, SC and preparing to walk through the doors that declared:

“Through these portals pass prospects for America’s finest fighting force.

United States Marines”

Three months later I would take my place in this fighting force as an avionics technician on CH-53D/E’s, the platform that has been the backbone of Marine Corps aviation since Vietnam. This is why at 20 years old, as a young NCO who hadn’t even been in the fleet marine force for more than a year, I found myself in southern Helmand province Afghanistan. But I would find more in Afghanistan than war; I would discover who I truly was as I experienced a defining moment in my life that would change me forever.

In the Marine Corps Air Wing the most important position within the aviation maintenance shop in any squadron is the role of Desk Sergeant. This is the person who manages the operations of an entire shop and a shift of marines. They are tasked with ensuring that the work being done on these multi billion-dollar aircraft is done correctly, and, even more importantly, they are charged with the responsibility to decide whether or not an aircraft is safe for flight. In addition to these duties, as an avionics marine, they are also responsible for the management and employment of the encryption technology, used for the communication and navigation systems, that allows our pilots to communicate with ground forces. They also oversee the operation of the countermeasure systems onboard the aircraft, which alert the pilots and aircrew of any outstanding threats that may exist (and protects them from such threats), keeping them and our fellow troops in transit safe.

During the first of two deployments to Afghanistan, I was the junior Corporal on my shift. There was another Corporal who was senior to me who facilitated the duties of Desk Sergeant regularly. On one particular day, he was assigned duties elsewhere and so I was the only NCO on the shift. I made the assumption that my SSgt would be the Desk Sergeant that day. When I walked in the shop my SSgt took the radio and the Desk Sergeant log and handed them to me. As I took them from him I could feel my heart drop, my palms get sweaty, and my heart began to race. He told me to follow him. I knew where we were going; he was taking me to the squadron meeting. In the squadron meeting you have the CO, XO, Majors, captains, warrant officers, SNCOs and other desk sergeants. I remember feeling extremely intimidated by the room itself. Being AVI (which is short for avionics) I was representing what is considered one of the big three shops, in addition to propulsions & power plants and airframes & hydraulics. There was a podium in the very front of the meeting where the big three shops would convene before the primary controller, since orders to the big three shops took precedence. But me, not knowing that (because this is my first meeting), I’m standing in the back of the meeting. Then I remember him pushing me forward to the podium. This was a sink or swim moment. In that second I had a choice to either swim and rise to meet the challenge of being Desk Sergeant, proving that I deserved the blood stripe that I had received meritoriously just months earlier, or sink and let down my shop and my unit who were counting on me, and most of all disappointing my junior Marines who were looking up to me as their leader. I swam.

It was in that situation that I realized the most important thing the marines had provided me wasn’t a way out of a bad neighborhood, gainful employment, or even this skill/trade of learning avionics, but an environment and a set of experiences that empowered me by helping me actualize what I was fully capable of.

Now as a veteran walking around our campus I can’t help but think to myself: how many more people who share my background and lived experience have that same potential, but simply haven’t been afforded the opportunities and experiences to cultivate who they truly are, and instead have become victims of their circumstances? To one-day be able to help bridge this opportunity gap has become the driving force within my life.

I have never felt more of an impetus to pursue this path than three days ago on election night. Many news outlets were presenting America with a narrative focusing on who voted and why, and ignoring the bigger question of who didn’t vote, and what factors discouraged these Americans from fulfilling their most critical civic duty?

Then all I had to do was reflect upon my own life and recall how the world I grew up in was shaped by a deficit of leadership, created by a lack of political will and an inability to evolve in order to meet the challenges of today. This has left a great divide between the electorate and our nation’s leaders. Here is where I find my purpose and where I intend to sow my life’s work. To advocate on behalf of those who, left disempowered, felt their hands were incapable of shaping the country that they live in and love just as much as any of us. With the will and courage I cultivated in the Marine Corps and the education and acumen I’ve acquired here, I intend to graduate from Yale in December and enter our world ready to do the work of mending this great divide.

It’s been thoughts like these that I’ve had at Yale that have led me to resolving within myself that though I’m no longer adorned in the MARPAT of yesterday, my work for a better country and a better world isn’t over — in fact, in many ways it is only just beginning. And so, taking off one uniform, I now prepare myself to put on another, as I look to continue the work I began the day I first stepped foot on those yellow foot prints, the work of shifting the paradigm of possibilities beyond the excluding grasps of wealth and privilege and bringing it within the proximity of merit and effort, ensuring that opportunity expands its reach to anyone and everyone who seeks it. Securing for all of us an equality of opportunity, this is the most essential promise of our country. This is the ideology we must make a reality, as it is also one of our most fundamental beliefs. A belief that myself, many of you present here today, and all of those who join us in spirit believed to be worth fighting and even dying for.

In the Marine Corps we use the saying, “Once a Marine always a Marine” to affirm our lifelong fraternal commitment to our fellow sisters and brothers in arms. Today I stand before you to declare that that saying for me has become a pledge and has come to include a lifelong commitment to engaging in the struggle for the betterment our society, our country, and our world. I ask everyone present today to join me in this pledge, marine or not, active duty, veteran, or civilian, to resolve to engage in this struggle in whatever capacity you are able to so that not one life that has been lost in the name of this value (or the countless others) that we hold dear, be in vain. Let us put these principles into practice so that what our fellow brothers and sisters fought and died for can truly come to life.

Thank you and,

Happy Veterans Day to you all!

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