A Veterans Day Reflection: A Transition of Identity and View of Sacrifice
“Why do people thank me for my service?”
This question often crossed my mind whenever I encountered someone in public while in uniform. Most of the time, I would subconsciously mumble back “Thank you for your support.” Other times, when caught completely off-guard, I would just freeze and say, “Thank you.”
Part of me always felt that I didn’t deserve the amount of gratitude that I received from these kind strangers, because I was compensated for my work. “It was just a job,” I would say to myself. “Why do people thank me for my service when I was simply doing my job?”
Sailing along with the ship that was built with the metal scraps from the twin tower in her keel felt like destiny fulfilled.
My job in the Navy never felt like a sacrifice to me. I traveled across the globe serving aboard US Naval Ship USS Somerset, a 9/11 memorial warship that is especially endearing to me. Just like many other native New Yorkers, my family was deeply affected by September 11th. I lost my uncle; he was trapped in the South Tower above the 92nd floor crash site. I lost my step-father to lung cancer many years later, possibly related to his participation in the search and rescue effort for my uncle’s remains. Sailing along with the ship that was built with the metal scraps from the twin tower in her keel felt like destiny fulfilled.
All of these connections to the ship gave my life many new meanings and motivated me even during a time of distress. Like many other sailors, Marines, soldiers, and airmen, I went through many pain-inducing training sessions, sustaining physical injuries along the way. I spent countless hours standing security, heavily-armed, to maintain safety measures for the ship, or getting constantly woken up in the dead of the night by an ear-piercing siren, alerting me to prepare for operations, including receiving medical casualties from ashore. These experiences brought a sense of transcendence to my life—I felt like I was a part of something bigger. These same experiences also ultimately guided me to where I am today: studying medical humanities and pursuing a career in medicine at the School of General Studies.
It wasn’t until I separated from the Navy and became a student again, that I started to feel contempt for the phrase “Thank you for your service.” Taking my uniforms off for the last time felt like losing a part of myself—as if a central part of my identity ceased to exist. All my passions and enthusiasm for the “bigger cause” had suddenly become meaningless and no longer allowed me to justify all the unpleasant experiences that I endured along the process. That was probably the most difficult part of my transition to life as a civilian student. What didn’t feel like a sacrifice to me at the time became one. I realized that I had spent six years of my youth for a cause that is no longer relevant to my life.
Taking my uniforms off for the last time felt like losing a part of myself—as if a central part of my identity ceased to exist.
My sense of purpose remains, however. Through my life in the military, I adopted a lifelong commitment to service. Although my service to our country’s military forces has come to an end, I am now pursuing a new life of service in medicine and healthcare. Even more, I am fortunate enough to not be alone in this process. This year, there are over 400 student-veterans studying at Columbia, going through similar transitions, and making their own attempts to start a new chapter in life.
To all of my veteran family on campus who are also finding their way through this transition, a happy Veterans Day to you!
Davey Liu is a second-year undergraduate student at Columbia University School of General Studies who is following the premedical track and planning on majoring in Medical Humanities. Born in a small Pacific Island called Guam, Davey spent his early childhood between the United States, Micronesia, and China. In 2014, Davey enlisted in the United States Navy and served as an Electronic Technician onboard USS Somerset, one of the three 9/11 memorial warships that pays tribute to the passengers and the crew of United Flight 93. In 2020, he concluded his 6-year contract and joined the GS Class of 2024. On top of being a full time student, Davey is working as a research assistant at Columbia Quantitative Proteomics and Metabolomics Center. In his free time, you can find him planning campus-wide events at the University Life Event Council or playing the piano/having jamming sessions with his friends at home.