Veterans open up about life out of uniform

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PGR Standing Flag Line.jpg

There is an axiom about military service that goes, “All gave some, some gave all.” Long after taking off the uniforms of their nation, some return to continue giving. Army veteran Lorenzo Lizarraga, Marine Corps veteran Ken Brassell, and Army veteran Tom Shaff are three such individuals. 

Continuing to give to active duty members, fellow veterans, and their families, for them, patriotism is integral to being a military veteran.   

There is an axiom about military service that goes, “All gave some, some gave all.” Long after taking off the uniforms of their nation, some return to continue giving. Army veteran Lorenzo Lizarraga, Marine Corps veteran Ken Brassell, and Army veteran Tom Shaff are three such individuals. 

Continuing to give to active duty members, fellow veterans, and their families, for them, patriotism is integral to being a military veteran.   

Lizarraga said he did not realize what it meant to be a veteran until later in life, long after taking off the uniform. 

His sense of (perhaps renewed) patriotism began while travelling, living, and working outside the country on civilian business for many years – Mexico, Saudi Arabia, China, South America, Central America.

“Once you leave this country, you are surprised how much you care for it,” said Lizarraga. “You realize how good it is, in spite of its flaws. You have to live outside of the country to truly appreciate it.”

Brassell said his patriotism was reborn after leaving the service.

“When I was in the service, I didn’t think that way,” he said.

When Brassell’s enlistment was up, he said he just left active duty with a “see ya” attitude and did not look back. 

Like Lizarraga, Brassell did not become involved as a veteran until much later in life. When asked if he had served in the military over the years, he normally just responded with a simple, “yes.” 

Then, while living in Texas in 2006, he attended a funeral for a gentleman who, unbeknownst to Brassell, was a veteran. Brassell was surprised to see five members of the Patriot Guard Riders (PGR) standing a flag line at his friend’s funeral. 

“That absolutely changed my life,” he said. “That is really cool. To stand up for this guy because he served.”

Lizarraga and Brassell are now stalwarts in local PGR activities.  They continue to give with a specific purpose.

“My commitment to it boils down to one thing: patriotism,” said Lizarraga.

This commitment is no small undertaking, since the Southern California PGR performs more missions than anywhere else in the country. For Lizarraga and Brassell it is a daily commitment: Maybe a few minutes, maybe several hours.  From mission planning, leading, and conducting, to distributing information, communicating with families, the military, cemeteries, mortuaries, and members of the PGR, they spend countless hours and countless miles ridden.   

It is based on their sense of patriotism discovered years after leaving active duty. Now retired and able to dedicate the hours each week, they agree they get more and more patriotic as their involvement with the PGR grows continues over time.

Some of their fellow PGR members are not veterans, but are just as committed, according to Lizarraga. The common denominator, however, is that they are all patriots through and through. 

“I am just as proud of a guy who comes to the Patriot Guard who isn’t a veteran,” said Brassell. “He didn’t go through boot camp and all the other crap we all did.”

Citing the recent PGR mission he led for Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Holley, one of the four Marines who perished in the CH-53 helicopter mishap, Brassell said, “It make you feel so proud, so patriotic.” 

And that pride is not only for the missions supporting active duty funerals, but for all the veterans as well. 

“I like honoring anyone,” said Brassell. “I don’t care if he was a janitor in the Army.” 

But Brassell said that sense of patriotism and pride also leads to frustration.  

“Patriotism wanes in a time of peace,” said Shaff. “Sadly, it takes an event, like 9-11, to bring out patriotism. People don’t show patriotism until there is an event that brings them out.” 

Veterans cite many factors contributing to what they see as diminished patriotism. Complacency was at top of the list, with the disconnect between general civilian society and the military a close second.

“I owe this country nearly everything,” said Lizarraga. 

He was the first one in his family, immediate and extended, to go into the US Army and the first one to go beyond high school. Since then, in the second and third generations, there are quite a few. 

“The opportunities are here in our country,” he said. “I don’t care what these kids are saying. The opportunities are there, you just have to take advantage of them and step forward. Things aren’t free. You have to put some effort out to reap the benefits.”

Patriotism is more than just holding a flag, Lizarraga said.

“When we talk about our commitment to the PGR, we are really describing our commitment to this country,” he said.

For these three veterans, patriotism was learned before joining the military.  They recited the Pledge of Allegiance in school. TV stations began and ended the broadcast day by playing the National Anthem with a film of an American flag flying. Lizarraga and his fellows said that since the schools and government do not teach patriotism anymore, it is up the veteran community to teach what it means to be an American.

“Young kids today, they don’t experience it,” said Shaff. “Unless they’ve seen it, experienced it, they don’t know it. People haven’t been to Dover. They haven’t seen a body come off an airplane.”

And patriotism is important for any nation.

“A generation without patriotism is a generation that will not fight for its country,” said Lizarraga. “We have one already and another one coming up.  Just look at the percentage of Americans that serve in the military. It’s very, very small.” 

Some reports indicate less than one-half of one percent serve on active duty. 

“Seeing a mother handed the American flag by a member of the military after her son ordaughter has given his or her life for the country – How could anyone then stomp on the flag after watching that?” Lizarraga said. “On a mission when we were heavy in the fight in Iraq, watching a casket being unloaded from an aircraft, I saw the mother standing there and thought that her son told her, before shipping out, ‘Don’t worry mom, I’ll be back.’ It brought me to tears and looking at the other PGR members, tears were in their eyes too.”   

Frustrated by the lack of participation by fellow veterans, Brassell has a problem with guys who were in the military, are now retired, and do not want to join the PGR. 

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “If you are sitting home doing nothing, and I tell you what we are doing, come out at least once a month. I can’t comprehend why, if they have time and are physically able, they would not want to do this periodically.” 

The San Diego Chamber of Commerce “Military Employment in San Diego” reports that there are more than 240,000 veterans living locally.

Brassell said he once gave packets with individual stars from American flags to Marines at a departure ceremony as the unit was shipping out for combat.  Several months later, at a welcome home mission, one Marine came up to Brassell, who did not remember him, and pulled out that dirty, creased, folded star, telling Brassell he had given it to him when they shipped out. 

“You’re the one,” said the marine. “You gave me this star. Here, I brought it back you like you told me too.” 

Veterans, feeling the resurgence of patriotism in the years long after their days on active duty, take pride in giving back to the military and their fellow vets.  For some, doing so requires a daily commitment: sometimes a few minutes or maybe a few hours. Their giving provides a sense of pride, as they honor those who are and have served our country. Frustrated that patriotism wanes in times of peace, they see a role of the veteran is to teach patriotism to younger generations. And they struggle to understand why veterans who are retired, are physically able, and have the time, do not pitch in. 

Looking to the future, they are hopeful the young veterans from our recent wars will experience the same sense of patriotism and do something!

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