“For those who fight to protect it, freedom has a flavor that the protected will never know”

I often hear those words, and both agree and disagree. As a combat veteran, or even a veteran in general, I do appreciate things more now than I did before. I think that’s probably true in many aspects of life; as a kid, I didn’t appreciate all that my parents or my teachers did for me, and had a greater appreciation for it as I grew older.

In another sense, however, I always thought this quote was more divisive than necessary. It gave me a sense of “us against them” or sacrificial snobbery. A way to end an argument with the “you just don’t understand” tactic, with me standing firm on my right perspective. I know, maybe it’s just me, but there is a piece of this quote that gives me the vibe of, “look, if you haven’t been there, you don’t get to have an opinion about it.” The quote could almost be, “for those who have never given birth, pain has a level that those who haven’t will never know.” Essentially, if you haven’t lived it, shut the hell up.

Maybe it has to do with the word “never” and my dislike for absolutes. Really? Someone who hasn’t served our country will not learn to appreciate the flavor of freedom? Like, not ever? That’s hard to believe, and I imagine that it would potentially be offensive to someone who has never served but loves and respects those who have served.

However, I had the opportunity to experience something that has given me a new perspective on this quote: it has literal truth to it.

I was in San Francisco and had coffee with Justin Evirs (who, at the time of this writing, is the Senior Director of Programs for Service to School, but will be doing much, much more). Much of our discussion was focused on the need and ability for veterans to be aware of their own potential; she, in her own sphere of influence in higher education, and me in mine of veteran mental health. I was in town to present on the need for developing cultural competence in mental health counseling for veterans, and as we went our separate ways, she gave me some good advice on a place to eat, and more: The Marine Corps Memorial Hotel.

I don’t know how often someone reading this may go to San Francisco, and stay at a hotel near Union Square, but if you do and you’re a veteran, this is a must-visit.

I had dinner at the Leatherneck Steakhouse. Just me, sitting alone, looking over the San Francisco skyline. It was a great experience, and I thought to myself, “man, every service member should try this, just once. They went through a whole lot of crap, and they deserve it.” The food was amazing, and yes, I had much appreciation for it.

Know what gave me even greater appreciation for it? Remembering my first MRE, thrown to me by a Drill Sergeant at Fort Leonard Wood in 1992. The old Cheese Omelet, in those days, was the only one wrapped in silver foil, and tasted pretty nasty. The appreciation I had for the wonderful meal that I was currently eating was enhanced by the memory of terrible meals that I had previously eaten.

That back-and-forth of present-overlaid-with-past continued throughout the meal. As I was looking at the candle on the table…yes, it was that kind of restaurant…my mind did some mental calculus through my veteran filter. Candle in a bottle…light in a bottle…fish in a bottle…Fish Boy!

In ’09-’10, as I was a Platoon Sergeant for a Security Escort platoon driving through Regional Command East, Afghanistan, there was a particular village that we always used to travel through. There was a kid in this village that was there nearly every time. One day, a buddy of mine asked the truck behind him to try to see what this kid was waving at us…it was, literally, a fish stuck in an empty plastic bottle. He was waving this fish bottle at every truck that went by, grinning from ear to ear. We, of course, named him Fish Boy.

Fish Boy was a huge fan of ours. He was always the one out front, leading the other kids, ecstatic when we would come through the village. It was as if the circus came to town. He even alerted us to an upcoming attack once. Probably saved some lives, certainly made us ready for something up ahead.

As this was going through my head, I looked around at the other diners around me. They didn’t know Fish Boy. My own loved ones only know Fish Boy as a story, as you do now. And they will literally never know him, as I do, because they were never there at the time.

After dinner, as I went to the lobby, I looked at the amazing displays presented. Tributes to Navy Corpsman, Korean Marines, Women Marines. The entire time, this phrase going through my mind, “Freedom has a flavor that others will never know.” I stood in front of a tribute to a fallen Marine, 2LT JP Blecksmith, USMC. In that display is a picture taken the day before or the day of his death. After you’re done reading this, I recommend that you take the time to read the story of the picture.

Click on this picture for a larger version

It was moving to me, impactful, meaningful. And I realized that it is meaningful to me in a way that it could not possibly be to someone who has not served in the military. Like it or not, coming out the other side of military service does give me a perspective of the sacrifice of my fallen brothers and sisters that someone who has never served does not have.

If you’re a veteran, take some time to reflect on the experiences you have and how they are impacted by the experiences you had. It’s part of who you are, what you know. It doesn’t make you better than those who have never served, and it certainly doesn’t make you worse. But it does mean you are different.

If you’re not a veteran, thank you for taking the time to read. It’s meaningful to me, and to those veterans in your life, that you want to understand. And you will get really, really close to knowing what that flavor tastes like…and then, when you see the veteran you know looking out the window with a sad smile and a faraway look in their eye, know that the flavor of their memory is passing thorough their mind.

And that’s okay.


The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!

Duane France

Duane K. L. France is a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a mental health counselor practicing in the state of Colorado. Do you want to join the conversation regarding veteran mental health? Share, like, and comment. Read Duane's previous posts and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn. Keep the conversation about #veteranmentalhealth going.