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This Thanksgiving holiday we all have so much to be thankful for. I’m a firm believer that we are masters of our own destiny for the most part, personally and professionally, and there are defining moments in our lives that fundamentally shape who we are and allow us to realize our full potential. Sometimes those moments originate outside our own control, and how we respond in those moments help us appreciate we are all more capable than we realize. I would like to share just such an event with you perhaps as a source of reflection over the Thanksgiving holiday.

I’m blessed with two wonderful sons. My oldest, Jason, is a marketing professional in London with an electric personality. He has achieved athletic and educational accomplishments and made his own opportunities in his life and his profession. A graduate degree at 23 and an accomplished athlete, he has a perpetually positive attitude and is infectiously inspirational on those around him. He continually makes me proud to be his Dad, though I try not to tell him that too often so as to keep his head at a normal circumference.

My youngest son, Cameron, recently completed his commitment in the US Army. He is more reserved and his crucible – as an Infantryman that started at 19 years old – has been different than most. Cameron was on a full ride to university and after his first year came to me and said he didn’t want me to be disappointed, but he didn’t like school, didn’t feel like he was learning anything relevant and didn’t have a sense of purpose. He told me he wanted to enlist in the Army. My response was cool and calm… “I want to throw you off the roof,” I said. I explained that his Mom (Sharon) and I had worked hard to give him this opportunity and he should take advantage of it – trust my wisdom. After a couple weeks of respectful banter, Sharon told me, “don’t confuse your ambitions for him with his own ambitions.” I really hate it when she’s right, but I trusted her wisdom. Off to the Army he went. Boot camp, infantry school and eventually into combat in Iraq.

Earlier this year Cameron called me to share some news. Important to note this is how I judge the importance of communications with my sons. Text: not so important. A phone call: well then, something special is going on. Cameron was a Specialist by this time, not quite at the middle of the pack in the Army ranks, and 22 years old. He said, “Dad, I was made a temporary Squad Leader while the position is vacant.” A squad in an Army unit is about 9 soldiers. That meant he was responsible for their overall organization, training and daily activities. In combat he would be responsible for leading them on missions to close on and destroy the enemy. It’s a position usually held by at least a Sergeant. I could tell by the tone of his voice and the way he described his future duties that he was excited about the opportunity.

A few days later, another call. “Dad, you’re never going to believe this. All the Platoon Sergeants are going away to training and I’ve been told I’ll be serving in that leadership role…it just got real.” An Army Platoon is 30-50 soldiers depending on mission and manning levels. His voice this time was a little more uncertain. I told him to lean on his training and instincts and he would be fine. I said something really profound like, “…just more monkeys in the zoo. You’ll be fine.” In my defense, I was still in shock at receiving two phone calls in the same week.

The third call that came a week later. This defining moment is where I think there’s a lesson for us all. I picked up his call and he sounded concerned. “Dad, the Platoon Leader (an officer) just called. One of my soldiers who has only been with the unit for a few weeks has been notified his Dad just died. He committed suicide. I have to help him through it.” No more jokes about monkeys in the zoo, I asked him if he wanted to walk through it. I had been there before in my own military career. He said, “Yes sir,” and we talked about what he can do, should do and can’t do. He stepped up and got it done…for the soldier, for the soldier’s family, for his unit and for his Army.

In what company, in what industry would we ask a 22-year-old to carry that level of responsibility? He called me back shortly after having spent time with his fellow soldier. Listening to how Cameron handled such a delicate situation, and seeing the way in which he comforted and supported his colleague, I quickly came to realize: we are all capable of far more than we realize, especially when faced with a challenge. The most significant events – those from which we will learn and grow the most – will come when we least expect them or when we’re least prepared.

Fast forward to last week. Cameron had made his decision to leave the Army and move to the next chapter of his life. I flew out to his base to make the two-day drive back with him. He insisted that wasn’t necessary. I lied and told him Sharon was worried about him making the trip alone. He adores his mom and would never want to worry her and so he agreed. I got what I wanted – a captive audience with him to talk about the next steps in his life. Two glorious days of wisdom from his Dad. He would need all his patience and I would need to keep a close eye on him to make sure he didn’t abandon me at a gas station along the way.

I hadn’t seen him in a year. His hair was high and tight and still and he had a boyish face, but his jaw was square and he had packed on about 45 pounds of muscle to that 140-pound frame he took to boot camp. In his eyes there was absolute confidence, as if nothing could shake him. Here’s the thing: I’m not sure there’s much I could offer him. His accomplishments were his own. He was part of the less than one percent of all Americans who will ever wear a military uniform to protect the freedom the other 99 percent enjoy. No, not much I could offer him except love, respect, and overwhelming pride.

If I had any doubt about the man he had become, a phone call during our car ride would bring it home for me. The call was from a fellow soldier, another Specialist Carmeron had worked with over the course of his deployment. Cameron put the call on speakerphone as he drove. The soldier thanked him, “Neuman, thanks for all you taught me and how you helped me and everyone else…” Of course, I omitted the friendly profanity, as was customary in casual Army conversations of this kind. “Neuman” explained to me the guy on the phone was, in Army jargon, a “Private Specialist,” meaning he entered the Army as a Specialist (four levels up from entry level) because he had an undergraduate degree when he enlisted. In other words, he had the rank of a Specialist, but the field experience of the most junior soldier, a Private. Their conversation was sincere and showed respect between two professionals of the same honorable profession, the profession of arms. I knew then, without any doubt or hesitation, my scrappy 19-year-old was gone. The man who sat beside me was strong, wise, compassionate and kind; all the traits I could have hoped for in a son. Nineteen-year-old Cameron was right: he had learned far more during his time in the Army than he would have in University, and best of all, it transformed him into the amazing man he is today. As a father, I couldn’t ask for anything more. Mission: accomplished.

So, as Thanksgiving approaches, I leave you with one last thought and an image: the group photo of Cameron and the Joes of Alpha Company when they were deployed to Iraq. Look at their faces. They aren’t forty-somethings you see in war movies. They are 19-22 year-olds on a mission with a responsibility greater than most will ever know. They were all capable of more than they knew, as are we all.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!