George Amaya/Voices | Lessons the Army taught me

George Amaya/Voices | Lessons the Army taught me


On Dec. 29, 1976, I took the following oath:

"I, George Amaya, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the president of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God."

I was 18, idealistic, deeply patriotic and so full of stupid youthful bravado that I lamented being late to the fight.

My father vehemently opposed my decision but had no recourse other than to bare his soul. "I uprooted my entire family to get your brother the best medical care in the world, why would I ever give you my blessing to risk your life in a pointless war?"

My family moved from Colombia to Miami in 1960 after my brother survived polio. Treatment would take years, so my parents' plan (like all immigrants, really) became the opportunities that their children could realize in America. Bringing a successful international business with us offered an advantage, and we received permanent residency immediately.

The U.S. was the only home I had ever known, and my loyalty was firmly rooted. I didn't hold the same affinity for Colombia as my parents and older siblings. As an immigrant, however, my loyalty was regularly questioned.

I wanted nothing greater than to prove my allegiance. Military service was that rite of passage that would finally transform my identity from immigrant to American. I felt it a small fare for the privilege, even if I were called to sacrifice.

I was certainly influenced by the times. My favorite classes in high school were U.S. history and U.S. government. I had an extraordinary teacher, Mr. D.H. Christie, who was referred to as "That Hippie Teacher" because of his long hair and antiwar and civil rights activism. He was a deeply patriotic American, committed to the principles of our Constitution.

Mr. Christie taught the Constitution as a living document. He was a master at juxtaposing issues that the Founding Fathers grappled with against the challenges America faced in the 1960s and 1970s. I remember his lesson on checks and balances: We read the Federalist No. 51 and then articles about Nixon/Watergate. He applied that same recipe to civil rights, freedom of the press, etc.

Life under the Uniform Code of Military Justice presented a vast contrast. Soldiers voluntarily cede many constitutional rights during service. Militaries can't function as democracies.

I now tell friends that the Army taught me what I did not want to do in life. In truth, it taught me a lot about how I should live my life.

The Army taught me that the antidote to prejudice is familiarity. It was my first experience in a fully integrated society. Blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians living and working together toward a common goal builds trust, respect and friendships.

It was also an amalgamation of American subcultures and, to a lesser extent, socio-economic status. We had Southerners and Midwesterners and Californians marching next to rich kids from the Hamptons — all were immigrant children of America, some with lineages as fresh as mine and others with pilgrim ancestors. Many shared my same need to prove their allegiance.

The Army helped me understand that our nation's greatest strength comes from the richness of our immigrant diversity. We are empathetically rooted to the many cultures and ethnicities of the world. We share a common desire for freedom that is constantly under threat, or for some, nonexistent. I came to appreciate the obligation of the strong to defend the weak.

The Army also gave me a crucial understanding of the fallibility of leadership. In the post-Vietnam/Nixon era, there was an ever-present element of introspection. We were taught that the atrocity ordered by a lieutenant or the misrepresentation by a general or the disregard of our Constitution by a president, cannot come to fruition without complicity from soldiers and ordinary citizens alike.

I left the Army with my own oath: "I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same."

In the 40 years since, my allegiance to our Constitution has never wavered or failed me. As an ordinary citizen, my obligation to hold our leaders accountable to our Constitution has never receded.

George Amaya lives in Champaign.

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