A Message on Veteran’s Day

Image Courtesy of US Pacific Fleet

I first saw America for the first time in the summer of 2002 . I don’t mean in the geographic sense, but rather that summer was the first time I had a chance to meet Americans from all over the country.

I had been a senior in high school on September 11th, 2001. Like a lot of kids from small towns unable to pay for college, I had already been looking at military service as a ticket out of town. The events of September 11th had cemented that path for me and I enlisted as an Infantryman shortly after graduation.

For basic training, I was assigned to Delta 2/58 at Ft. Benning, GA along with about a hundred other people who had signed up shortly after September 11th. In addition to learning the skills to become an Infantryman, it was also the first time that I would meet people from all across our nation. It was the first time I had heard accents other than my own native Texas one. (Boston is the one that comes to mind as the one that stuck out the most — he claimed to live in a houseboat on the haaabor.) The first time I’d met people from North Carolina, Montana, and Kentucky. He wasn’t in my unit, but I remember being in the chow line when somebody ahead of me mentioned some NFL football player was in one of the other training battalions. (That man ended up being Pat Tillman.) While I was there, I met the children of immigrants serving alongside soldiers with long family histories of military service.

It was also the first time I had met a Muslim-American. Being fresh out of high school and from a small town, I couldn’t appreciate then what it must have been like for him to sign up in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t thank him properly. As the years have passed, I’m reminded of his service every time anti-Muslim sentiment rears it’s ugly head. The last time I saw him was in Baghdad at the ‘Teardrop” — he was with a unit who was rotating in while I was rotating out.

E Pluribus Unum — One out of many. There are very few organizations that exemplify that more than our armed services and I consider it a privilege to be in their company.

Last week was the Code for America Summit, where I was reminded again of how big this country is. The Brigades have grown to a point where you can go to most large cities and find a Brigade there. I have friends who work to use their skills to serve the public from Boston to Anchorage to Miami to Honolulu and all kinds of places in between.

It’s no surprise that many of members of the Code for America network are also veterans. Patrick McDonnell, a 2016 fellow, played saxophone in the United States Army Band. Diana Tran, a 2012 fellow, served in the Marines during Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Guess who ran workout sessions during Fellowship that year?) On the Brigade side, Chris Whong of BetaNYC served in the US Army as a commander of an engineer company. Hassan Schroeder, a core team member out of San Jose, was an electronics instructor in the SouthEastern Signal School at Ft. Gordon and then in the 6/517th Air Defense Artillery Germany during the Vietnam War. Bret Fisher from Code for Hampton Roads served aboard the USS Emory S. Land as a data systems technician. In Baltimore, US Air Force Veteran Wes Etheredge is helping to jumpstart a Brigade there. And speaking of Air Forces, OpenOakland founder Steve Spiker served in the Australian Air Force.

It’s worth noting that many of our public servants who work in government are also veterans — including the majority of people who work at the VA. And while they continue to serve their country, the civic tech movement works to serve them. The United States Digital Service has a team dedicated solely to Veterans Affairs. Vets.gov is a new veterans-centered website that will consolidate all of the Department of Veterans Affairs existing services in to a single, self-service user experience being built by AdHoc — whose team includes former fellow Laura Ellena. And at this year’s Summit we got to hear from VA CTO Marina Martin about her work improving the veteran experience at the VA. We still have more work to do, but we’re glad to see the progress.

From all of us at Code for America, we’d like to thank our nation’s veterans for their service.

Christopher Whitaker

US Army, 3rd Infantry Division

2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment