Yesterday at Rotary, one of the preliminary speakers told an anecdote, the punch line of which was one I’ve heard a number of times recently: "If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you’re reading it in English, thank a soldier."
I can assure you there was no ill intent toward anyone in the mind of the person who said that Monday. He simply meant to express the obligation that all of us owe to those who have worn the uniform of our country, and I agree with the sentiment. As for the actual words… well, as tends to happen during meetings, my mind starting riffing on what I’d heard, and it launched on two tracks. The first was that it seems that I started hearing that bit about "reading it in English" repeated more often about the time illegal immigration became such an emotional issue in this country. I suspect that I’m wrong; I’m sure I just started noticing the phrase, and hearing vague xenophobic echoes that weren’t really there, at about that time. After all, the two issues have no actual connection. Then I went down the second track: Is there any soldier alive today who fought in a war that prevented a situation in which we were likely to be speaking any language other than English? I started running through all the wars in my mind. Certainly we’d still speak English if we’d lost in 1783 or 1812. Maybe the Southwest was changed by the war with Mexico, but those guys have been dead a century and more. Certainly the world would be wildly different had we lost in 1919 or 1945, or the Cold War, but I suspect we’d still speak English — although maybe the REST of the world wouldn’t have switched to the English standard…
Anyway, all this nonsense was swept away when the main speaker stepped to the podium. It was Sgt. José Muñoz, United States Army. (That’s him in the video above. I apologize for the quality; I shot it with my phone.) The first words out of his mouth were to beg forgiveness for his strong accent. He had been born in Mexico. He became a U.S. citizen earlier this year. He has done two combat tours in Iraq, and is about to go to Afghanistan. He joked that he joined the Army hoping to see more of THIS, his adopted country, but has seen little outside of Fort Bragg, while he has been all over Iraq, first with artillery, and later with convoy security.
Sgt. Muñoz was visiting us as part of the Pentagon’s "Why We Serve" speakers program. (That’s his official portrait below at left, much better than my phone version.) He said he didn’t fully understand at first why he was going to the Pentagon. He had never been there
before. They just told him to show up in his Class A’s, so that’s what he did.
There was no particular political message other than the usual grousing about how "the media" always tell you the bad stuff that happens in Iraq. I just sat impassive through that, the way I always do (something that’s made easier by the fact that I know exactly what he means, and I know it has nothing to do with me). He had just come to tell why he, José Muñoz, is a United States soldier. He told of how, when he went into Iraq in the 2003 invasion, the Iraqi civilians treated him and his comrades like rock stars. Specifically, he said he felt like Ricky Martin. Later, it was more neutral, he said — they were looked upon just as a fact of life.
He also wanted to let everyone know that despite the fact that convoy security is extremely hazardous, his unit did not lose a single soldier during that deployment.
In response to a question that seemed to lead in this direction, Sgt. Muñoz volunteered the fact that his family came to this country legally. So that pretty much spoiled any pious little sermon I might offer on the immigration issue, seeing as how the angry people all insist that they don’t mind immigrants as long as they have their papers, and probably believe that if Sgt. Muñoz didn’t have his papers, he’d be essentially a different person (a sort of thinking I don’t follow, but that’s why I don’t get why this issue is as hot as it is).
In any case, suffice it to say that Sgt. Muñoz received a standing ovation. All present seemed to feel privileged to be in his presence.
Maybe we should add a corollary: "If you’re reading it in English as a second language, thank a soldier." I certainly made a point of thanking Sgt. Muñoz after the meeting. To me, and I believe to my fellow Rotarians, he’s a much bigger deal than Ricky Martin.