By Santhosh Shivashankar

“Thank you for your service,” was the overwhelming praise I repeatedly received from global titans of finance, healthcare and philanthropy during the 2018 Milken Global Conference. Oddly enough, I’m never sure what to say in return because I sometimes feel undeserving of such praise. Unlike many of my sisters and brothers in the Army, Marines, and Air force, I rarely feel that what I am doing is particularly dangerous. I started my career as submariner and can attest that 99% of my military time has been out of harm’s way. Certainly there are long days and nights, but is it so different for anyone? Cramped quarters, long hours, and a feeling of uncertainty could just as easily describe my sister’s time working at Bloomberg. So what warrants such praise?

Perhaps it’s that our career is seen as imbuing honor; after all, we do volunteer for service. But in the end, I am only human. Sometimes I walk by a piece of trash on the ground and do not pick it up. Sometimes I talk to the homeless to see how I can help, or offer what I can. Many others do more. “But, you’re keeping the nation safe from our enemies!” I hear the war hawks chant in the distance. If the primary enemies are armed combatants waiting to take our nation by force, then maybe I am. But as I look out my window, I don’t see uniformed killers lined up with weapons of mass destruction. Instead I see poverty, inequality, and a feeling of hopelessness that is slowly suffocating our country.

Everyday brave American teachers, health care workers, and volunteer organizations fight these evils, and often they are under resourced and under trained to deal with the complex issues they are tasked to solve. Service members have the risk of losing their lives, but sadly, in this day and age many of our civilian heroes also work under that threat. They also lack the protective armor that the military is afforded. It is not the armor made of kevlar or steel, but the type made of the pride and gratitude of a nation.

The Milken Global Conference aimed to bring together the wealthiest and most influential individuals to tackle these issues. Though I was in awe of the accomplishments of the panel members, I was skeptical that people seemingly so far from the struggles of the everyday Americans could show true understanding. My mind didn’t change until I sat in on a panel on company culture, where Tim Armstrong, CEO of Oath Inc, said that when he enters a meeting and there is no diversity, he simply cancels the meeting. It was one of the most impactful statements by a leader that I ever heard. I watched as the wealthiest people in the nation made the case over and over that the responsibility to make this world a better place laid squarely on the shoulders of those who were privileged enough to make a difference.

I saw heroes in the audience. People who were risking all of their personal wealth, pride and social capital to contribute to the betterment of society. I contrasted my career, and saw that there was very little professional risk I would ever have to take. My paycheck, benefits, and social standing were as secure as a bank vault. In that, I finally realized what to say in response. “Thank you for your support.” Thank you for the opportunity to defend this great democracy where citizens use their time, passion, and resources for the betterment of society. Seeing that is my true inspiration.

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