Veterans@Scale: Reflection and Remembrance on Memorial Day

byon May 27, 2022

This Memorial Day, join us on Jacob's journey as he shares his experiences with the costs of war.

My college application process was based on a single announcement. During a senior-year English class, my high school principal walked in and announced two passenger airplanes had struck the World Trade Center buildings. While West Point was already my top choice, I went home and threw away applications I had started to other colleges. Witnessing 9/11 was a formative experience for me and my response to it was fully naive. At the time, I didn't know much about al-Qaeda. I likely couldn’t point out Afghanistan on a map. And I certainly couldn’t have a discussion about different sects within Islam. My framework for responding was just as naively simple: do something. 

Four days after graduating high school, I arrived at West Point. Our freshman class underwent our first summer of military training with a palpable sense of urgency that we would – not might – go to war. As the academic year started, I caught my first glimpse of the war’s toll in an unlikely place – the cadet mess hall. West Point’s mess hall is a cavernous and historic cafeteria of sorts, a place seemingly pulled straight from Hogwarts, where the operational feat of feeding 4,000 hungry cadets in 20 minutes happens not once, but three times a day. Seconds before lunch, the cacophony of noises that filled the mess hall was exchanged with perfect silence as a cadet leader barked daily instructions from a central, two-story platform. These instructions were usually about something mundane like uniform or schedule changes. Yet some days the instructions were replaced with a solemn announcement that a West Point graduate died during combat operations in Afghanistan. 

These announcements increased toward the end of my freshman year as the United States launched another campaign in the Global War on Terror with the invasion of Iraq. By the time I was a senior, some announcements were graduates I knew well. First Lieutenant Gary Avery was my teammate from an arduous cadet military skills competition. Major Bill Hecker was my eccentric freshman year English composition instructor who left behind his wife to raise their four children. As a 19-year-old kid, I struggled to make sense of news like this. I would hang my head for the rest of the meal, then return to my routine of cramming for an afternoon exam.

While I no longer heard lunchtime announcements after I graduated from West Point, the news of more deaths did not stop. Through text messages from friends, I would hear about other graduates I knew – like Emily Perez, Tom Martin, and Matt Ferrara – who were killed in combat. Eventually, it was my classmates’ turn to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan. Tim Cunningham and Nick Dewhirst were the first two from my class not to make it back home. During my second combat deployment as a Special Forces team leader in southeastern Afghanistan, I heard frantic radio traffic detailing an insider attack in an adjacent province that killed three American servicemembers. Later that day I would learn one of those killed was my West Point classmate and fellow Special Forces team leader Andrew-Pedersen Keel, better known as “PK.” 

Even after I returned home from Afghanistan, the announcements continued. The flow of Taliban from Pakistan increased into the area my team had previously secured only months prior. These new fighters killed 11 Afghan police at one of their checkpoints in the middle of the night. A few weeks later, the Taliban fired a rocket at an American convoy in the same area, killing a soldier previously assigned to my team and my best interpreter. The soldier left behind three children and the interpreter was only a few weeks away from going home on his last of several deployments to Afghanistan. 

A couple years later while I was in graduate school, I woke up to another announcement, this time in the New York Times. A Taliban suicide bomber had walked into a crowded volleyball match in the exact area where my team had been in Afghanistan, killing over 40 people, eight of them local police my team had trained. I remember watching a volleyball tournament there two years prior – the first since the Taliban had outlawed all sporting events. It was one achievement I used to rationalize the costs of the war. I thought this progress would never be reversed, but it was erased instantly.

I still struggle to make sense of the many announcements that defined my transition into adulthood and my early professional life. I think about the families of those killed for whom there is no such thing as a return to normal. I often feel guilty for making it back from war alive or for tactical decisions I made that contributed to the loss of life. I don’t understand how I escaped unscathed from the ambushes and other violence I encountered. The role of chance in war is maddening and absurd. 

Aggregating the costs of war is also an exercise in absurdity. The Watson Institute at Brown University reports that over 7,000 American service members have been killed in post-9/11 combat operations. Over 30,000 American service members – four times the number of those who died in combat – have taken their own lives over the same time period. Beyond the U.S., Western allies who sent troops to support American wars account for roughly 1,000 more deaths. I’m acutely aware of the estimated 200,000 deaths of partner military and national police forces in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Fighting alongside them, I quickly realized how remarkable their bravery and sacrifice were, especially considering how under-resourced they were by their governments. Even more hidden from public view are the estimated 300,000 civilians who died violent deaths directly related to the wars. This doesn’t include the indirect impact on civilians, like those who lost access to basic resources or were displaced from their homes as refugees. Financially, the Watson Institute estimates the U.S. spent nearly $8 trillion related to post-9/11 wars.

You might have strong reactions as you process the costs of these wars. You might bristle with pride at those who gave the last full measure of devotion for their country. You might feel angry at the cost of America’s wars and view them as misadventures marked by hubris and strategic failures. You might feel a sense of guilt as you try to understand an experience from which you are so detached. All of these reactions aren’t merely okay – they are fundamentally human. Whatever your reaction to these costs of war, I encourage you to take two actions as Memorial Day approaches. 

The first action is reflection. I find it useful to reflect on an obvious, yet unsettling fact: we are all finite. Even though much of my adult life was filled with announcements reminding me of life’s brevity and fragility, it is not natural to linger on this reality for more than a few moments. Set aside time to reflect on this and ask yourself: “What causes are worth my life?”, “What acts of service will I undertake with the finite time I have left?”, and “In what ways am I living sacrificially for others?” Reflecting on questions like these can be helpful in living an examined life to deliberately grow into the person you hope to become. 

The second action is remembrance. My most powerful experience of remembrance came while I was serving as an instructor at West Point and visited its historic cemetery on Memorial Day a few years ago. When I approached a row of tombstones of West Point alumni who graduated around the time I was a cadet, I paused on one that belonged to First Lieutenant Laura Walker. I noticed the date of her death and realized she was one of the announcements I heard at lunch during my junior year as a cadet. As I gazed at some photos placed near her tomb, two people walked toward me who had been sitting under a nearby tree. They were Laura’s parents. They make an annual pilgrimage to West Point’s cemetery on Memorial Day to meet others who come across Laura in the cemetery and to share her stories with them. What struck me the most while talking with them were the human terms – like “goofball” – they used to describe Laura. There was no mention of the word “hero,” just relatable stories that highlighted Laura’s similarities to the rest of us. 

In that spirit, my act of remembrance for this Memorial Day was to learn more about the stories of those who were announcements in my life. I learned that Gary Avery liked sewing and even started a nonprofit for Iraqi orphans while he was a cadet. I learned that Bill Hecker was a Saint Louis Cardinals fanatic and loved gathering his four kids on the couch before bedtime to give dramatic readings from Little House on the Prairie. I learned that Emily Perez was known during her days as a cadet for jingling her tambourine through the hallways of the barracks on Sunday mornings as she walked to a Baptist church service. 

I encourage you to do the same kind of remembrance. As we remember the fallen for the ordinary people they were – for how similar they are to you and me – we realize that the ordinary human agency they had to make selfless choices with their lives is also available to the rest of us. 

About Veterans@Scale

We’re investing in a diverse and inclusive workforce at Scale, and our workforce is as diverse as the customers we serve. We have different backgrounds and varied experiences. But wherever we work, whatever we do, we share a single set of values that unite our company. 

One of the pillars of our diversity, inclusion, and belonging efforts is Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). We currently have five ERGs, and each one plays a vital role in ensuring that those different communities have a voice and can actively influence our company policies and culture. Today, we’re happy to shine a spotlight on Veterans@Scale and hear from one of its veteran members, Jacob Sheehan.

About Jacob

Jacob leads the Federal labeling workforce at Scale as the Head of Federal Supply. He served in the U.S. Army as a Special Forces Officer and an assistant professor of Economics at the United State Military Academy (West Point). He is a graduate of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and a Fulbright Scholar to the United Kingdom.

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