Lessons from America’s first veteran

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on November 11, 2018. It can also be found online here.

This month, Maj. Brent Taylor of the Utah Army National Guard — who was also the mayor of North Ogden, Utah — was killed in Afghanistan. His voice may now be silent, but his words live on.

When he took a leave of absence from his mayoral duties to deploy for his fourth combat tour, Maj. Taylor told his town he wanted to serve “whenever and however I can” and that “service is really what leadership is all about.” He was grateful to contribute to others — and Taylor’s words echo the sentiments of America’s first veteran, Gen. George Washington, which matter even more in our dangerously divided country this Veterans Day.

It really was no different in Washington’s time. Colonial society was deeply divided between neighbors who were tragically split between loyalty to Great Britain and the creation of a nation. So much that at the end of the Revolutionary War, a political fervor infected some soldiers who, in March 1783, called for a meeting without Washington to plot what looked like a coup.

Washington learned of the gathering to take place in Newburgh, N.Y., and showed up unannounced. He advised the rogue soldiers turn back toward “moderate measures” and “forbearance,” and reminded them of the danger posed by he who “wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord.” Washington’s subtle, yet unmistakable, allusion to his years of sacrifice came when he reached for a pair of reading spectacles and said, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me, I have not only grown gray, but almost blind, in the service of my country.”

It worked. The coup never activated. But it shook Washington. A few months later, still in Newburgh, he began to write — roughly 4,000 words — the first draft of what eventually grew into his Farewell Address. And not long after that, on Dec. 4, 1783, he traveled by boat from New York to Annapolis, Md., and resigned his military commission to the Continental Congress. On this date, at least in spirit, Washington became America’s first veteran.

Washington’s paramount concern was to protect America. What he secured as a soldier, he held onto as president. And his Farewell Address, which appeared in print on Sept. 19, 1796, was his final advice to the American people on the nation’s continued survival.

Like Taylor, Washington stressed his appreciation, the “debt of gratitude” he owed his “beloved country.” He touched on foreign affairs, free trade, religion, morality, education — but running right through his remarks was a warning about factionalism and division that Washington worried might break the country apart.

Unity was Washington’s core message, bound by a deep dedication to civility. He wrote, “To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable.” More importantly, “The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.”

Those Washingtonian ideals are now hardwired into the larger military, and clearly lived on in Brent Taylor. Evidence of his high-minded commitment to unity and civility can be seen in those who knew him best. His city’s interim mayor noted Taylor’s nonpartisan nature, characterizing him not as “a politician” but as a “statesman.” And one of his constituents said she “didn’t politically align with [Taylor],” but that she still “cried all day” when she heard the news he’d been killed, in part because “he treated everyone with respect, and he listened,” irrespective of political party or affiliation.

In his final public post, on Oct. 28, days before he was killed, Taylor said how impressed he was to see so many brave Afghans vote. His thoughts then moved on to America, where he hoped “everyone back home exercises their precious right to vote,” and “whether the Republicans or the Democrats win, that we all remember that we have far more as Americans that unites us than divides us.”

As an officer and politician committed to America, above divisive partisanship, Taylor marched in Washington’s footsteps and was strong enough to carry his sword. At least for this moment, on this Veterans Day, Maj. Brent Taylor has earned the mantle of America’s first veteran, and the right to be eulogized as Washington was: “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

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