Op-Ed: An American story, one soldier’s retirement recollections on the eve of Memorial Day weekend

May 26, 2019 Veteran Support
Mike Jason retired as an Army colonel May 23 in a ceremony at the Pentagon after 24 years in uniform.

I heard it said that this set of remarks is sort of my last word in the Army.

The last few years of political and social upheaval have given me much to think about as I prepared for closing this chapter in my life. It is not lost on me that this important milestone in my life comes on the eve of Memorial Day weekend. Memorial, from memory to remember. How to honor and remember my good friends Capt. Hans Kurth, Majors Allan Rogers and Paul Voelke, Lt. Col. Todd Clark and so many others who made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf?

I could not escape how each of today’s hot button issues touched me personally, how despite the narrative I created for myself, the two dimensional officer described in today’s ceremony hand-out, there is a much more complex three-dimensional story behind him. I would like to tell you more of this story, a story that is a bit more nuanced than the bios we print on programs for events like today’s. It’s an American story.

You have heard the cliff notes version.

The All American Family of four military brothers – multiple combat tours, medals, accolades, news articles, promotions and commands. When my brother did some family research, we even discovered that on my mother’s mother’s side there was an unbroken line of military leadership all the way back to our 17th great grandfather being awarded his spurs by Henry the Vth at Agincourt.

And that is an American story, but it’s never quite that simple. My mother’s father’s side was a bit more complex. We knew he had been an Infantryman in the famed New York 42nd Infantry Division, but we lost the trail until we finally found some answers in those whispered family secrets. My grandfather, was born and raised in the Montana territory.

His Irish family was very likely what today we would call illegal aliens. My grandfather befriended the Native American children in his town, but his father could not stand it, so he shipped him off to the east coast to live with an uncle—one whose personal failures and malfeasance led him to change his last name, thus my grandfather, as a boy, thanks to good old bigotry and dishonesty, had to change his own name. And that too is an American story.

On my father’s side, I would learn that my own name, Jason, is also born out of bigotry. In New York of the 1940s, as World War II raged on, my grandfather and his brothers could not get employment due to rampant anti-Semitism and resurgent nativism. And so, right about the time that the entire suburb outside of Riga, Latvia, where their parents and older siblings grew up, and their extended relatives still lived, was wiped out in 24 hours – every single inhabitant murdered – my grandfather and his brother had to change their names, HERE, in OUR country, because that is part of an American story too.

And so that takes us to my own parents, two Americans with new names who meet overseas. Because thanks to American Security and NATO ushering the new European Union, global travel and international business is possible even during the Cold War. And so in Italy, four American Jason brothers are born. It was here, where the signs of a World War were around every corner, that the seed for military service was planted. From artillery craters in the neighborhood, to the numbered tattoos on the forearms of relatives and neighbors, to the farmer across the alley with a glass eye, shot by a Nazi sniper, WWII loomed large. And with each of those stories, was always the narrative of the heroism of the American Soldier.

It was a regular occurrence for Italians to stop us and thank me, a little boy, for what our country did to liberate them. From those experiences, I idolized the American Soldier. He was the only super hero worth emulating, and I wanted to be one.

We were there for the first eleven years of my life, we didn’t even speak English at home, but, Italy has no birthright citizenship. No “anchor babies” and so there came a point when all of a sudden, with little notice, we had to leave and come “home.” For me, an 11-year-old who barely spoke English, leaving all I knew, it was traumatic and a culture shock. In many ways I lived an immigrant experience – though nowhere near what refugees and other immigrants have experienced, to include several in this room. But this experience proved vital, and for this future Army officer, there would always be a special asterisk when I encountered soldiers who learned English as a second language and pursued their American dream in uniform.

So Italy’s loss became America’s gain, and we began anew in Sarasota, Florida. It was here that I met Maj. Paul Tatum (retired) my JROTC instructor, long passed, MAJ T was in the very first ranger class. Lied about his age at 15, and a platoon sergeant in the Korean War by 17, he was an old warhorse and worked with retired SFC Larry Guizar, himself a veteran of LZ X-Ray in the Ia Drang. This was my first leadership lab.

But it wasn’t all in the war stories, it was also in the stories MAJ T told me about growing up poor in Jim Crow Alabama, the conflict he carried in his in his heart – as an incredible army leader, but one who had to face and unlearn the racism he was taught since he could take his first steps. This too is part of the American story.

West Point provided innumerable formative lessons, but I want to share one in particular, it’s where I first confronted post-traumatic stress, an experience that formed my personal commitment to understanding this issue. On one of the Memorial Days during my time as a cadet, a bunch of us went on a field trip to a local VA hospital in New York. We were all milling about talking to these old veterans, when I noticed one older man in a wheelchair, he was completely catatonic. I asked about him, and was told he had been in the Bataan Death March – as a student of history I knew to be an incredible ordeal – but that wasn’t the end of the story.

You see, he had been OK, at least on the exterior. He came home, started a family, a career, children, grandchildren, the works. Then, while hosting a BBQ, not unlike what we will all do this weekend, something snapped, and all the weight and demons of his experiences welled up and collapsed on his soul. I made a vow then that I would not let that happen me, and I would do everything in my power to prevent that from happening to my soldiers. And that began my passion for combat leadership and understanding post combat trauma. Because out there, walking our streets, or in institutions are many of these warriors, and that too is America. I urge my combat comrades to conduct “maintenance checks” on your soul every once in a while.

Looking back, a lot has happened since I first pinned on my bars – and I don’t just mean the nine variations of uniforms I had to buy. I did witness the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Women are finally allowed in the combat arms; the first female African American is in space, and was the First Captain of West Point, and now a Ranger school graduate. As a father I know in my heart, that my daughter can do anything she sets her heart to. And this too is America.

Chiara Jason, 2, smiles at her dad, Mike Jason, who retired May 23 as an Army colonel in a Pentagon ceremony.

Chiara Jason, 2, smiles at her dad, Mike Jason, who retired May 23 as an Army colonel in a Pentagon ceremony.

For those still in uniform, if I can leave you one bit of advice, remember that you are so much more than your bio, so much more than your military file and how this profession defines you. You are the author of your own unique and nuanced three-dimensional story. Don’t ever forget that. And I also leave you a challenge, like that little boy in Italy who was inspired to serve for a quarter century, when our children live or travel overseas, will the locals still thank them and express admiration for this experiment, this idea called the United States?

And so as I close, I look over at my daughter, I know my story now: I realize that without knowing it, all I ever learned, all I ever stood for, all I ever fought for, all I will continue to fight for is her future. And like the last 24 years, I will leave nothing on the field.

Mike Jason, a West Point graduate, retired on May 23 as a colonel in the United States Army in a ceremony at the Pentagon. He deployed overseas on multiple operational and combat missions, leading his soldiers in Germany, the Balkans, Iraq, and commanding the famed 1st Battalion 30th Infantry Regiment in Afghanistan. Jason and his family will remain in Alexandria, Virginia, and continue spreading their roots. This piece was adapted from his retirement speech.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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