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Something Bigger Than Themselves

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

HANNIBAL, Mo. -- An older gentleman stands outside of Lydia's Cabinet of Curiosities on the corner of North and Bird with his dog, waiting for his wife, who is shopping inside the colorful antique store filled with skulls, maps, paintings and enticing oddities.

He is dressed in an orange T-shirt with a red, white and blue Talladega "Sparks will fly" logo on the left pocket and sporting a black ball cap with the words "ARMY" and "VIETNAM VETERAN" and five stars stitched across the front in gold, along with three service ribbon designators.

The screen door of the shop is open, and a young man inside notices the gentleman pacing. He motions him to come in, tells him the dog is welcome and then notices his Army cap.

"Sir, did you serve?" he asks. The veteran confirms. "Thank you for your service," he says, and he shakes the veteran's hand.

"I did three tours in Iraq," the young man tells him. The older veteran salutes him and says, "Thank you for your service."

They both nod, and without words, the look shared between them acknowledges to anyone else watching they know something no one who has never served in the military will ever know.

Both men are a tiny piece in a much larger jigsaw puzzle of those who make up the American military -- the men and women who make the personal sacrifice to defend our national treasure; our people.

What drives someone to serve? Retired Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, an experienced infantryman who took the reins of U.S. Central Command, the most powerful U.S. combatant command, in 2013 and held it until his retirement last year, has some ideas, beginning with his own story.

"I decided to go to West Point because my father sat down and talked to me, and talked about how it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and so eventually I agreed with him," he said. "Although honestly at the time I had my heart set on going to Notre Dame, actually, but I always knew in my heart that I'd serve in the military if I was qualified."

How did he know? The roots began in the small southwestern Georgia town of Thomasville, where he grew up.

He said: "I was a teenager during the Vietnam War, late '60's, early '70's, and so I had relatives, cousins, uncles that served in the military. ... they talked to me about their experiences, and my father was a corporal in World War II, served in the Philippines, and he talked to me about his experience as well."

He noted: "I wanted to be like them, walk in their shoes, serve my country, and so that's the reason that I really wanted to join. I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself, and I wanted to make a difference."

As a high school senior, he said, he had it all figured out: "I was going to go to West Point, I was going to serve for five years, get out, go to law school, and be a lawyer, and make a lot of money."

That plan didn't work out. In short, Austin stayed in the military for 41 years because he really liked what he was doing.

Over the years, as he talks to young people and asks them why they joined, most often it's the same answer he gave. He described: "I mean, in this day and age, when they joined, they knew that they'd serve in most likely a combat environment, but I get the same answer over and over again. They want to serve their country. They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and they want to make a difference."

Austin has just been named West Point's Distinguished Leadership Chair, an Army leadership role that rotates every two years. He said: "I engage these cadets a couple times a semester on leadership issues, and so I have a chance to dig a little deeper in terms of what they're thinking and what they're focused on, and they are very committed to serving their country."

It was that acknowledgement, that understanding that went unsaid but was so tangible, that was shared by the two men in the curiosity shop. They knew they were drawn to serve, and although they were separated by three generations, they were cut from the same cloth.

The two veterans size each other up respectfully, one still in the full bloom of youth, the other covered in silver hair. They share an unspoken bond: Both have seen the intensity, danger and horror associated with fighting, and both were willing to sign up to be part of something bigger than themselves.

They both nod, and as the older man and his wife walk out the door, the younger man gives him a silent salute.

The older man places his arm around his wife and holds her tight as they walk silently up Bird Street.

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