In a guest appearance in The Finger Lakes Times, Lt. Col. John Norvell ’66, P’99, P’02 reflects on what it means to be a member of the U.S. Armed Forces and how duty, honor and country set the high standard to which service members are held.
The article explores the notion of duty as the basis of the other values; honor as requiring those who serve to demonstrate that they are honorable in all they do; and country as “more than blind love” for the nation.
Norvell writes that the important lesson of the military is “that you are not alone. You are part of a team. Because of this you will aspire to be better, you will achieve more, and in the end you will be a better person.”
Norvell served in the U.S. Air Force from 1966-1989, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. He was a decorated F-4 Phantom air combat veteran of the Vietnam War. He also served as assistant professor of history at the Air Force Academy and later as alumni director at HWS until 2002. While a student at Hobart, he was a member of the Druids, Honors program, Canterbury Club, the Echo and Pine yearbook staff, Advanced Air Force ROTC and the Arnold Air Society.
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Duty. Honor. Country.
Let me repeat that: Duty, honor, country. The American people hold their service members to a high standard. It is duty, honor and country that set that standard. In his speech to the West Point Corps of Cadets in 1962, Gen. Douglas MacArthur said: “Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying point.” In these words he sets forth the basis of the military experience: Transformational leadership.
You go into the military as an outsider. In the process you are changed and you internalize values that are higher than the ones you had before. They make you a better person, not a lesser one. You do not give up your rights if you believe this, you understand that your rights are not singular, they are part of the rights of all. If you put yourself first, if you think that what you do is more important than other citizens, you weaken the nation. That is the important lesson of the military, that you are not alone. You are part of a team. Because of this you will aspire to be better, you will achieve more, and in the end you will be a better person.
Perhaps it’s time again to look at these words and see what they mean to the members of our armed forces. But first, why duty above honor and country?
Duty is the basis of the other values. The first lesson you learn in the military is to know your job. In this you must understand all aspects of what is required of you. Your life and the lives of your friends and those you command may depend upon it.
Second comes honor as those who serve with you must feel that they can trust you. It is not just that you are honored to wear the uniform of the United States, it is that you demonstrate that you are an honorable person in all you do. The military academies take great stock in their honor codes, which state that they will not cheat, lie, or steal and not tolerate those who do. Because you expect the best in others all the time you can rely on them to do what is necessary in the line of duty even if you are called upon to put your life on the line.
Country may appear to be last, but it is equally important in the trinity of values. Yet it is more than blind love of county. It is the understanding that this country is not personified not in a king. The Founders were very careful to ensure that even the president was held in check by the Constitution’s division of powers. We swear allegiance to the Constitution as the basis of our freedoms. We do our duty to uphold it. We take an oath to honor it. And we place it as our highest manifestation of home and freedom.
So you may ask of the three which is the most important to me. I value honor. I have had bosses who were not the brightest, but I could take them at their words. Sadly I found that when I entered the civilian workforce honor did not always come into play. I had a civilian boss who lied all the time. I worked very hard in my job, I tried to work with this man, but in the end I could not overcome his lack of honor; I left the job after being there for many years. It doesn’t matter if you seem to do your job, talk the good talk, and are in charge.
If you have no honor you have nothing.
Above: Lt. Col. John E. Norvell in 1972, then a captain, before a flight in the F-4 Phantom II jet.