What I learned from my father's service in the National Guard

In Masslive 5/18/17

Back in 2008 I got an interesting phone call from my dad. He was signing up to join the Massachusetts Army National Guard at the age of 56.

My dad had run a family medical practice in Holyoke for many years. One of his patients, who was a veteran himself, told him about the chronic shortage of doctors in the armed services. So he took matters into his own hands and signed up to help.

Less than two years later, he flew out for his first tour of duty: staffing a troop medical clinic at a U.S. base in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq.

I learned a few things from my father's service.

First, our men and women in uniform make tremendous sacrifices, and so do their families. My mom was left alone for several months to manage on her own while worrying about her husband's safety. Thousands of our military families in Massachusetts face much tougher situations.

Second, I learned the essential role the broader civilian community must play in supporting service-members and their families. Our National Guard, in particular, are often called "citizen-soldiers" because they are expected to put their private lives and careers on hold, sometimes on a moment's notice. And their absence is felt by the community around them.

For my dad, this meant asking other doctors and healthcare providers to cover his patients and keep the practice running while he was overseas.

In Massachusetts, we should be especially proud of the role we played with the nation's first National Guard, dating back to the first minuteman who fired the shot heard round the world.

I also learned about the many ways we need to improve care for our veterans, and about the unique challenges our men and women in uniform -- and their families -- face on a daily basis.

These include very real anxieties, from re-entering the civilian workforce to worrying about their families while they are away. There are several items I'm working on in the Massachusetts Senate aimed at addressing these unique needs.

Veterans also come back with a variety of skills that should transfer seamlessly to careers in engineering, vehicle mechanics, police training and others. Unfortunately, many of our state requirements for professional licenses still don't recognize these skills, sometimes forcing veterans to retake training they already received in the armed services. I filed a bill, "An Act to aid military service members in finding civilian employment," to correct this.

As the sun sets on the World War II generation, we have a large number of veterans from Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and the war on terror who will take their place. They deserve our gratitude and our care, which is why I continue to fight to protect the Holyoke Soldiers Home.

As Memorial Day approaches, each of us has a solemn obligation to honor those who, as Abraham Lincoln said, "have borne the battle."

That commitment must go beyond mere words. It must be reflected in our actions and, most importantly, in the laws our citizen-soldiers fight to defend.

Sen. Eric P. Lesser is chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies, vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, and leads Millennial Outreach for the State Senate. He represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts.

Op-edEric Lesser