I'll never forget the first night of the war in Iraq.
My high school marching band had just spent a week visiting New Orleans, and we were headed back to Illinois. I remember vaguely knowing the war was coming, but didn't pay as much attention as I should have to current events.
But our driver knew; he left talk radio playing on the bus' loudspeaker that whole night. I remember drifting off to sleep on that bumpy ride north, and waking up to the realization that our nation was at war.
Then, I don't think I grasped the historical enormity of that night's events. I was focused on finishing high school and finding a good college. A war didn't seem too important at the time. (And I believe that opinion was pretty standard among my classmates.) In my sheltered state, I never dreamed it would be affecting our nation five years later.
Sure, the war tempered aspects of my life. The next year, I wrote a senior term paper on the use of propaganda during wartime.
A couple years later, Seymour Hersh visited my university. I fired off an indignant column (that ran on this newspaper's Sunday editorial page) about how my peers didn't seem to care about the war and how we needed to do everything in our power (which, looking back on it, wasn't much) to end it.
It's been almost three years since I penned that particular piece, and I'll admit that my political views - and opinions about the war - have mellowed quite a bit.
Part of that has come from interviewees of stories I've written during my first 10 months as a professional reporter. I now see the war through the eyes of those affected firsthand, rather than through a remote veil of media coverage and general contempt.
I'll never forget American Legion National Commander Marty Conatser's response to my question about whether he supports the war: Our soldiers believe we can win, and I must stand with our soldiers, he told me during an interview for a Veterans Day story.
I've talked to mothers, wives, friends and family members of area men who gave their lives while serving in Iraq. Their stories are heartbreaking, but the general theme is pretty clear: their sons, husbands and children's fathers are heroes. They gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
As a citizen, I must give those men - and all veterans - my unadulterated respect. And while I wouldn't necessarily peg myself as pro-war these days, I'm would never call myself anti-war. We're five years in, and my own opinion doesn't change much in the scope of things.
The years have given me some important perspective on how this war will change my life. Many men and women my age have served there and will continue to do so for the indefinite future.
I'm just beginning to grasp the future attention we'll have to give to veterans' health care and benefits. Thousands of people who will be my colleagues and peers for the rest of my life have have firsthand experience with the war.
And perhaps that's the most important lessons I've learned in the last five years: no matter how much longer the U.S. is fighting in Iraq, this war is a historical event. It's been affecting the world for a little less than a quarter of my life. And it will continue to affect our society forever, much like the way World War II and the Vietnam War still reverberate through our culture.
That's something I never imagined five years ago.