In Transition: I’m a Veteran…Quick, Tell Me How Great I Am

by | 11 Oct, 2018 | 3 comments

Affirmation is a powerful opiate.

Facebook knows this.

So does LinkedIn and Instagram and Twitter et. al. I mean, they’re all the same people, but Zuckerberg and company long ago deciphered the secret.

Napoleon knew it too. “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon,” he remarked while being taken into exile on St. Helena.

The U.S. Army knows it. What men won’t do for a bit of colored ribbon.

How might we act when the ribbons run out?

Military Affirmation

At some point, most Army officers begin to look like Mexican generals.

I was a freshly-minted lieutenant on my first assignment, when our unit had it’s battalion formal. Like a good LT, I assembled my uniform and brought it to work for inspection. 1SG McCool was your typical salty, old-school First Sergeant. He examined my uniform, nodded his head, pointed to my whopping total of 2 ribbons, and coolly remarked, “You’re some kind of f***’n hero, huh, Sir?” before strolling off, leaving me in a pool of my shattered manhood.

But the ribbons came…in bunches over the years.

I recall my excitement upon receiving an Army Commendation Medal 12 months later as a PCS award for doing my job. Many had to settle for an Army Achievement Medal which is, you know, like one less. A second PCS generated another ARCOM and even a Humanitarian Service Medal for, you guessed it, doing my job.

The war opened the floodgates. Ribbons flowed like wine and the medals flocked like the salmon of Capistrano. Air medals. Meritorious Service Medals. And the brass ring of hubris, the Bronze Star: all awarded for…doing our jobs.

And men jockeyed for them. Buddies submitted buddies for ribbons. Soldiers in unusual occupational specialties sought to “get outside the wire” for a bit of excitement and perhaps a medal. Ground guys hitched a ride in an aircraft, “performed duties”, and received Air Medals.

The Pentagon even invented a badge, the Combat Action Badge, the epitome of every-soldier-gets-a-trophy, the requirement being that the enemy “engaged” you. That’s it. Define “engage.”

          “So let me get this straight, the enemy mortared the base and you want a Combat Action Badge.”

          “Yes Sir. I deserve it.”

          “I guess we’ll have to submit one for the other 5,000 soldiers stationed here.”

Entitlement replaced expectation, so powerful is the need for affirmation.

The military ribbon is a symbol of affirmation, never mind if accomplishments are real or imagined. If they’re on the rack, it must’ve happened. Throw in some skill badges, maybe Air Assault or Airborne, and bam! Looking good. Instant hero. Let the praises flow.

After nearly 23 years, my ribbon rack looked pretty decent despite the fact that I really only felt as if I’d earned one, my Army Commendation Medal for being a rear detachment commander. No matter.

Pride is a powerful motivator, with the need for affirmation as a willing accomplice. It wasn’t the ribbons themselves, it was what they symbolized, the acclaim of men. And it’s effective.

Never mind what I’m asking you to do—deploy repeatedly and be absent from your family for years on end—here’s a ribbon. Now get on the plane.

Seeking Affirmation

Social media is a powerful influence in our society.

Affirmation is it’s fuel.

Consider the idea of ‘likes’, until a few years ago, a completely foreign concept. Harness man’s innate desire for the approval of other men, give them a platform for obtaining that approval via a tangible ‘like’ or even better, a ‘share’, and watch usage skyrocket.


They’ve marketed affirmation as a commodity and like any commodity, some attempt to acquire it illegitimately.

You can buy ‘likes’. Did you know that?

I’ve always felt sorry for the stolen valor dudes.

You’ve seen these guys. They dress up in military uniforms, despite never having served or having served in a ‘lesser’ capacity, and then parade themselves seeking, you guessed it, affirmation.

An entire cottage industry exists in ‘outing’ these guys. Some veterans are so offended by the idea of ‘stolen’ valor—as if true valor could be stolen—that they confront the offenders and publicly shame them on the internet.

But men desire acclaim. It is natural to seek the praises of other men.

Men need affirmation, particularly in their vocation, from where so many find their worth in the first place.

A New Reality

In some ways, the civilian sector is harsher than the military.

The bottom line rules. The ability to generate revenue drives everything in our capitalistic system.

There are no service awards, no awards formations. You’ll not receive the acclaim of men by what you wear on your ‘uniform’. No one cares what you did yesterday, but what have you done for me lately.

For years, you’ve been told how special you are. You’ve been lauded for your sacrifice, honored for your service, praised for your commitment. You have the ribbons to prove it.

For years, you’ve received a healthy and regular dose of affirmation.

What will you do when that is no more?

True Affirmation

Let’s talk about acclaim.

As I have died to sin and self and been raised to a newness of life in Christ, I no longer serve myself. I do everything unto the Lord. (Colossians 3:23) Ultimately, I labor on behalf of the Lord. I love on behalf of the Lord. I father on behalf of the Lord.

As Paul writes, “we make it our aim to please him.” (2 Corinthians 5:9) We reject the empty and hollow praises of men, knowing that the fickle hearts of men often reject that which they have previously praised. We reject the need for worldly affirmation and rest in the promise of one day hearing the gentle words of our Father, “well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:23)

Knowing this, what more could I need?

I recall feeling similarly about football helmet stickers.

I was a decent high school player and our team awarded little white skull stickers to paste on our maroon helmets for good plays. At the conclusion of Thursday practice, the coach would assemble us and hand out the stickers in front of the entire team. Then, you could wear the stickers on your helmet for everyone to know what a standout you were.

I was decent, but not as good as Woods. He battled through a knee injury and missed the first few games of his senior season. His first game back, he killed it, terrorizing our opponents, worthy of more than a few stickers. I sure bet he was excited to start filling up his otherwise plain maroon helmet.

And sure enough, he received several stickers and as the coach dismissed us, I looked over at Woods who had casually dropped his stickers to the ground and was grinding them into the mud with his cleats in disgust. I was shocked.

Woods had no need for the acclaim of men. As my coach used to say, he let his pads to the talking.

May we all let our pads do the talking.

Now, if you’ll just share this post please and maybe even comment about how excellent it was, I’d be very appreciative.

In Transition: Series

Time and the Transitioning Warrior

I wanted a mission…

Veteran, It’s Not All About You (me)

Round is a Shape


  1. Allan Folsom

    Bravo sir. Well done.

  2. Eloy Martinez

    As always, I enjoy reading your articles and this one is no different. Well done. I will definitely be sharing this one.

    • Bradford Smith

      Eloy! Thanks for the words brother. I pray you are well.


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Bradford Smith

Bradford Smith

Author - Founder

Soldier, Pastor, Author – Bradford stays busy, with his wife Ami, raising their 9 children, serving the nation, pastoring, preaching, and writing books (#3 is due out October ’17).


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