Veterans Day is an opportunity to honor the men and women who have served their country. But for those who have served, the day carries special meaning. Eight Forty-Eight turned to Matt Ulrich, an account executive here at WBEZ who served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the United States Army, to find out what the day means for him:
Growing up I didn’t know the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day. I knew they were days set aside to honor anyone in military service.
If you knew someone in the military, or had the rare chance to see one in uniform, you thanked them for their service and carried on; I wasn’t oblivious to it all. When I was 10, my parents asked me to lead grace at Thanksgiving dinner. During prayer, I asked God to watch over our soldiers serving in Operation Desert Storm; it made my Aunt Geeda cry. Looking back on it, it seemed like the thing right to say, but I’m pretty sure that I didn’t know what it meant.
On September 11th, 2001, I woke up to a phone call from my friend Kevin telling me about what happened. Later that day I was listening to Russ Martin, a local shock jock in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He was taking calls about how people were feeling about the terrorist attacks. One of the calls was from an Army recruiter from the Dallas suburb where I grew up. He said people were walking in to join the Army so that they could help the U.S. hold those accountable for the terrorist acts. I found it odd that it took an act of terrorism to inspire patriotism; seemed like a knee-jerk reaction to me. I dismissed any and all idea of military service and continued the life of a struggling college student with a healthy partying lifestyle.
A few months later, I was watching the HBO series Band of Brothers. That’s the epic story of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, who fought in WWII.
I watched, reflected on each episode and even did some research on the military vernacular. I wanted to understand every detail of war. And, I became inspired! I wanted to grab a rifle, don a uniform and help fight off the Germans with the allies by our side. Unfortunately, time travel doesn’t exist. Instead, I stepped into an Army recruiter station. It was the very same recruiter station that was mentioned on the radio a few months earlier.
Four years later I was a leader in an infantry reconnaissance team about to embark on a yearlong deployment in Iraq. Our primary focus was Iraq’s second largest city Mosul. It was our job to stop the flow of money and guns; it wasn’t easy. It was about building relationships within the community, understanding patterns of enemy behavior, and doing a little detective work. We were immensely successful and I’m proud to say that a lot of it came from understanding the culture and having a lot of faith and patience.
During my time in the military, many things about me changed. I no longer felt as if I was serving my country. I felt like I was serving my family, my military family. As promotions came and my responsibility for life increased, I felt like a big brother or a father to some of these men; I always put them first.
I sent my unit home before I took leave, skipping holidays with my family at home. There were repercussions to this. My then wife pointed to this loyalty to my unit as a reason to leave me. She told me this when I flew home to meet her during my two weeks leave. I had just landed in Dallas, a hub for soldiers returning home, and all I wanted to do was jump back on the plane and return to Iraq. Iraq, where I felt my real family was.
"Four years later I was a leader in an infantry reconnaissance team about to embark on a yearlong deployment in Iraq. Our primary focus was Iraq’s second largest city Mosul."
There was a feeling I had like there’s no other person on earth that could care for these men and guide them like I could. Now that may not be true but it’s certainly the way that I felt. So it was tough to be the one to tell them we weren’t going home after our yearlong tour was complete. We were only eight days from heading home when President Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld sent us down south to Baghdad. The rumor was that we may not see Christmas stateside that year. Devastation doesn’t begin to describe the look on a soldier’s face when you tell him he will have to wait longer to go home to meet his newly born child for the first time.
Baghdad was an eye opener. I know the U.S. media was saying it wasn’t a civil war but I was there, and that’s exactly what I saw. They were fighting each other, not us. It was very difficult to understand why we were there. But I still stuck to my number one priority, keeping my men safe and bringing them home alive.
After a little more than three and a half months, it was music to my ears to hear that we would be returning home on December the 1st. I’m proud to say every soldier under my care came home unscathed. They were returning to wives, girlfriends, children that had grown. I was returning with a sense of accomplishment, not for what we had done in Iraq, but for the simple fact that all of my men were coming home. I was beaming and nothing could stop that, not even my wife leaving my life.
I love this country, I really do. But its days like Veterans Day that remind me of what kept me going and why I did it. It wasn’t for the home I grew up in, or the freedoms I have. It was for the men, friends and family members that were by my side. Sometimes I feel guilty when someone says thank you. It was a TV show – not 9-11 – that inspired me to join the military.
I don’t need a day like Veterans Day to remind me of what I’ve done and what it means to people in this country who haven’t served. Veterans Day is our nation’s chance to say thank you for our sacrifices, our losses and our dedication; because there’s no way of understanding what we really have gone through. Please don’t misunderstand me. When you say, “thank you,” I appreciate it. It’s just that I don’t know what to do with it. All I can say is thank you as well.
Music Button: Kabanjak, "High Priest", from the CD Tree of Mystery, (ESL)