Rockbridge Academy Blog
Sixty years ago, President John F. Kennedy, while honoring a different occasion, spoke something that is relevant here:
“A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.”
The tradition of setting aside a particular day to honor American veterans extends back to the end of the First World War, which concluded at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Dubbed “Armistice Day,” it was an occasion to honor the veterans of that great conflict. But because the War to End All Wars didn’t, in 1954 Congress amended the commemoration by changing “armistice” to “veterans” in order to honor all military personnel who have worn the uniform of the nation, whether in war or peace.
However, Veterans Day is just one of three holidays honoring our military. Correctly distinguishing between them is important, if sometimes confusing. Definitions help. Per US Code, a “veteran” is one who served in the US military and was subsequently released on conditions other than dishonorable. The past tense is important. Armed Forces Day, probably the least well known of our martial holidays, honors those who are currently serving. Memorial Day, as the name ought to imply, is for remembering those Americans who gave their lives while serving the nation. Though Veterans Day carries a dimension of this memorial component in that it officially honors all veterans, whether living or dead, in practice the day is largely devoted to thanking living veterans for their service.
So, on this day, Americans of all faiths or none take a moment to remember that we—the many—live under debt—to the few. Christians should be the first to do so. While the “few” we honor today are not specifically the fallen, everyone who has put on the cloth of the nation knows that in the performance of their duty they may be called to sacrifice everything. If we’re right to believe there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend, then, clearly, the willingness to do so is not far off. Veterans Day, therefore, is an opportunity to fulfill, in a modest way, the obligation to pause, recognize, and reflect upon the fact that we are a free people free to enjoy the fruits of a free society because since the birth of our nation, some men and some women have willingly stood on freedom’s wall and fought and killed and risked death to keep us safe. In response to such service, gratitude is appropriate.
My own consciousness of this debt is continually reinforced in two primary ways. First by the friendships—both deep and wide—that I have forged with active duty, retired, and former servicemembers through my professional work as a teacher, scholar, and ethicist who focuses on the moral dimensions of war. Their presence in my life reminds me that freedom isn’t free. Second, there is a photograph I have of my paternal great-grandparents standing near a collection of framed portraits of their four sons and daughter, my grandmother. All the children are in military uniform, save one—he died as a toddler of a botched tonsillectomy. One among the others, and bearing the uniform of the Army Air Corp, is my great-uncle Edward, from whom I received my middle name. Uncle Ed was a gunner assigned to the 783rd Squadron of the 55th Bomber Wing. He died on takeoff over the airfield in Pantanella, Italy, when a device placed by an Italian saboteur detonated, killing him and the rest of his B-24 Liberator’s crew. As providence would have it, Uncle Ed died during the squadron’s first (and only) mission to Slovakia, where their objective was to hit a marshaling yard in Devinska Nova Ves, a suburb of Bratislava. As it happens, I lived in Bratislava for more than a decade. While there, among other things, I helped build and run a sports and recreation program in Devinska. We built a baseball diamond not far from the main railway station, presumably, my Uncle’s intended targeting point. I knew nothing of Uncle Ed’s attempted mission while living there. And while it’s silly, the fact of it all makes me now feel somehow connected to him—as if I managed to get to where he was trying to go. Of course, and even better, I got to throw baseballs when I got there, not bombs (My guess is Ed would have liked that better too). This anecdote touches on something that mustn’t be missed: Veterans Day reminds us that bombs must sometimes come before baseballs. This is to say, war is sometimes required to make the conditions for peace possible. The good work that was done on that baseball field—the simple joys of kids playing games with strong and healthy bodies in a free and self-determining society and with aspirations for a meaningful future—was purchased at the cost of men like my Uncle Ed being willing to stand and risk everything to resist those who crossed borders without cause in order to subjugate their neighbors.
This isn’t to make a fetish of either war or nation. But it is to acknowledge the realities of human life. Wars are terrible things. But sometimes they are necessary to prevent or end things that are more terrible still. The Christian tradition of just war takes seriously two truths. First, it recognizes, as the beginning of Genesis teaches us, that human beings, made in the image of God, have a responsibility to exercise stewardship, or care—dominion—over all the earth. It also recognizes, second, that dominion in this world will be exercised in light of the reality of human sin. There are some people, and some nations, that have no interest in loving their neighbors but only in dominating them. Therefore, and however lamentable, the just war moral framework insists that there may be times when a political sovereign—that person or body over whom there is no one greater charged with the care of the political community, determines, in the last resort and for the aim of peace, that nothing other than the proportionate and discriminate use of military force will retribute evil, take back what has wrongly been taken, or protect the innocent. In such cases, and only such cases, war is required to restore order, justice, and to make possible the conditions for reconciliation.
Veterans Day reminds us that the political conditions necessary for human beings to flourish cannot be had for a trifle. They are secured at a cost—sometimes a very great cost. This cost isn’t merely the physical risks our warfighters take. It includes the moral risks, the spiritual bruising, great and small, that comes from doing terrible things—even if justified and necessary—to our enemy-neighbors. Veterans Day, therefore, also reminds us that while there is nothing glorious about war in and of itself, there is surely something glorious about being a nation composed of men and women who are willing to stand on freedom’s wall, in service of their neighbor and just cause, and to justly fight those wars that are necessary and just to fight.
“Remember that you are first and foremost a soldier in Christ’s army…"
Nathan Davenport (2020), Marine Corps
The Rockbridge Academy Veterans Day Ceremony, first held in 2008, arose from a desire to encourage the student body, offer a warm welcome to our neighbors, and honor veterans and active service members in the school and community. The ceremony has changed slightly over the years, but the highlights remain the same: an address by an honored military guest, speeches by student winners of the VFW Patriot's Pen and Voice of Democracy competitions, music from the Rockbridge choir, and a time for students to meet and thank veterans personally. The ceremony was warmly received from the start, and with the exception of 2020, it has been a cherished Rockbridge tradition ever since.
Rockbridge has always had close ties to those in the military. Currently, more than 40 families in the Rockbridge community have active or retired service members. Several staff have a military background or military spouses, and because of our proximity to the Naval Academy, Ft. Meade, and other defense employers, the school has always drawn families with military affiliations. These service members work in a wide range of fields—naval aviation, cryptologic warfare, music. Many have served for decades all over the country and world, often in extremely challenging conditions.
But our ties go even deeper, to the values reflected beautifully in the lives of our veterans and service members—values we share as a school.
One of those values is “My Life for Yours”: the desire to love others freely and sacrificially, just as Christ came “not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This is something we long to see reflected in the hallways and classrooms of Rockbridge. Kim Williams, who served in the Air Force and Reserves for 23 years and taught at Rockbridge for 11 (ending in 2022), says this verse from Mark was especially meaningful during her time in the military. Just as Jesus came in the flesh to love and sacrifice for His people, a military leader had to be willing to invest in and sacrifice for those she led. Rockbridge service members describe separation from their families and church communities, physical deprivation and danger, and the grave responsibility of protecting life and freedom as some of those sacrifices. For such we are deeply grateful.
Another is acknowledging “Christ as Core”—the reality that all things are integrated under the lordship of Christ, and that in every circumstance, He is working out His sovereign plan for creation. This truth is woven into every subject at Rockbridge and is also a key truth for Christians in the military, especially as they are called to uncertain and sometimes chaotic situations. Rockbridge father Lance Nickerson, Program Manager with the US Army Counterintelligence Command, has served as an active duty member and civilian for over two decades. He says that God’s sovereignty was one of the primary spiritual lessons he gained from his time in the service: no circumstance was accidental, and nothing was beyond God’s control. Army Major Andre Slonopas drew from Ecclesiastes 3:11 as he witnessed the turmoil of Afghanistan: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Those who serve in the military often experience firsthand the fallenness of our world. Yet as followers of Christ, they trust that He is always at work, redeeming it for His good purposes.
Our alumni are one more link between Rockbridge and the military, and one of the school’s most meaningful reasons for honoring those who serve. Rockbridge graduates have pursued careers in the army, navy, air force, and marines; attended military academies, sought ROTC scholarships, enlisted, and supported military spouses. Today they are cyber security specialists, naval officers, aviators, and students pursuing advanced degrees in service of their country.
Many testify to the ways Rockbridge both inspired and equipped them to serve. Several were influenced by the military leaders they met on staff and among the families at Rockbridge—men and women of integrity and courage. Some found that the academic standards, constant practice in public speaking, and leadership opportunities on the athletic field prepared them well for the rigors of officer training.
Perhaps most importantly, many graduates believe Rockbridge gave them a firm foundation as followers of Christ. “Rockbridge gave me access to the deep wells of Christian truth that would sustain me during difficult times,” writes Navy Lieutenant Daniel Dawson (2012), currently studying at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Private First Class Nathan Davenport (2020), training with the Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune, says Rockbridge taught him to “think critically” and encouraged him to “examine every aspect of life in the light of Scripture and live it to the glory of God”—even when the environment is challenging physically and spiritually.
Rockbridge Academy hopes to continue supporting our military by coming alongside military families, listening to their stories, and equipping future graduates to stand firm in Christ and serve to His glory. We look forward to honoring you this November 11. To those who serve and have served our country, thank you.
Monica Ault serves as the Upper School Administrative Assistant at Rockbridge Academy and has been a Rockbridge parent for 20 years.