COMMENTARY: Service members: Be proud to serve, stay honor-able

RAF MILDENHALL, England -- As if life in the military isn't tough enough, it seems that lately there have been a lot of negative themes being trolled out in front of us; messages that seem to imply in one way or another that we're not doing a great job.

I, for one, am not biting on that baited hook.

My two cents? Let me quote the 101st Airborne Division's acting commander when he was offered a chance to surrender to the Germans at Bastogne in World War II - "Nuts!"

Are we perfect? No. Do we have some folks who might need to leave the service? Maybe. But are the lion's share of us busting our butts every day; accomplishing amazing tasks under wild uncertainty and insane pressure? Heck yeah, we are. And more importantly, are we committed to holding ourselves accountable, looking out for our Wingmen, fighting for constant improvement, and ever-ready to run to the sound of gunfire? Damn skippy.

It's easy to lose sight of how unique we are. Out of approximately 314 million Americans, our 1.4 million service members represent only 0.4 percent of America. For you statistic skeptics out there, I'll even pare it down to the military-eligible population of approximately 145 million ... that means we're only 0.95 percent. So, 327,000 Airmen, then, equal 0.1 percent.

What makes those numbers more impressive is we're all volunteers. If you been around the block as long as I have (which is a couple of laps less than Chief Master Sgt. William Markham ... just sayin'), you've seen other militaries: militaries with conscripts; militaries with reduced or no physical standards; militaries with no equipment; even militaries that don't pay their forces. We are truly blessed to serve a great nation - a nation that honors our service. The same is not true in every country.

Why do our fellow Americans honor our service? I think it's largely because we give of ourselves to something greater than ourselves, and we do so under a system of accountability. We are a unique segment of society that enforces professional standards.

When things go awry, our leadership addresses the issues, provides steerage and guidance, and we move forward. And at every level, we need to own the problem and set things straight. It's what we must do to remain "honor-able."

Because our efforts and reputation must remain honorable, continued military service is not a right or an entitlement. It's a privilege retained through devotion, excellence and sacrifice. There's no guarantee of lifetime employment -- it's an up or out, merit-based system. It's not easy to serve; nor should it be. Thus, you should be proud of your sacrifice.

So, the next time you find yourself thinking there's a "kick me" sign on your back, or that "the man" thinks you're some sort of deviant, know this: you are part of the finest all-volunteer military the world has ever seen. You had to compete and meet standards to get in, you have to work your backside off and meet standards to stay in--and your nation admires you for it. We (the resident old men and women here at RAF Mildenhall) see it every day, and we're amazed by how well you get the mission done.

So keep it up, and keep your chin up. That's an order.

Continue to take care of each other, and continue to do what's right - the right way. We owe that to each other, to our mission and to our fellow Americans.

We have much to be thankful for. I remain proud to be your teammate, and I wish you and your loved-ones a safe and enjoyable holiday season.

(Editor's note: Col. Ireland and Chief Markham will buy the beverage of choice for the first 10 RAF Mildenhall teammates to email the Army 101st Airborne Division general's name to Col. Ireland. Also, those 10 "winners" will be required to bring some military history knowledge to the conversation. More to follow -- email if you dare.)